ST. PETERSBURG — The Rev. Stephen Parkes had just returned from a 31-mile bike ride near Orlando when the Pope’s ambassador called to say that he had been appointed bishop of the Diocese of Savannah.
The mid-morning call from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio, or papal envoy, was completely unexpected.
“This is not something that we anticipate,” said Parkes, 55. “It’s not something that we ask for, that we apply for.”
The Vatican ambassador made another call that morning to St. Petersburg, to share the news with Bishop Gregory Parkes, head of Tampa Bay’s almost half-million Catholics, and older brother of Savannah’s next bishop.
“I was in my office at the pastoral center when the nuncio called me on my cell phone, and of course, whenever he calls you, you’re wondering why he is calling. The last couple of times was to move me. It’s always big news,” the bishop-elect’s brother said.
That July 2 morning, the head of the Diocese of St. Petersburg would become one of only a few people privy to the news that wouldn’t be made public for almost a week. The nuncio’s call was a thoughtful gesture, the bishop said, that opened the way for the two brothers to discuss the momentous, but still confidential, news.
“It allowed me to call him and to congratulate him and to offer him my support and my prayers,” the bishop said. “I just told him how proud I was of him. I told him he was a good priest and pastor and that he would be a good bishop for Savannah.”
The Parkes brothers are close in age. The St. Petersburg bishop is 56. The bishop-elect of Savannah is 55. Their older brother, Christopher, who retired from the Department of the Navy and was present for his brother’s installation as bishop in St. Petersburg in January 2017, died that August. He was 55.
Their late parents, Ronald and Joan Parkes, brought up their sons in a close-knit Long Island family that was steeped in their Catholic faith. The two brothers’ spiritual quests took similar paths. They both worked for banks before heeding the call to priesthood. Bishop-elect Stephen Parkes was ordained in 1998, Bishop Gregory Parkes, the following year.
“Vocations come from families. Priests come from families,” the bishop-elect said. “I am grateful for that, that my parents encouraged us.”
Gregory Parkes became a bishop in 2012, first leading the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee before being appointed to the much larger Diocese of St. Petersburg, which spans Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties.
His brother will be ordained and installed bishop of the Diocese of Savannah on Sept. 23. The Parkes brothers’ accomplishments are significant on several levels.
“Being able to share not only the bond of sibling brothers, but our vocation as priests and bishops is very special and very unique,” the next bishop of Savannah said. “In the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, we are the 11th combination of brothers that are bishops.”
And they are the only priests in the 52-year history of the Diocese of Orlando, where they were ordained, to become bishops.
Growing up, Bishop Gregory Parkes said he believed he spoke more about becoming a priest than his brother.
“In fact, when I go back and look in my school memory books, from the second grade … it said I wanted to be a priest,” he said. “But then during high school and college, I didn’t think too much about it.”
The St. Petersburg bishop, who has a bachelor’s degree in finance from Florida State University, said he “began discerning God’s call” in his 20s.
“The fact that my brother entered seminary a year before I did and had a good experience there, gave me the encouragement to make that next step to enter seminary myself,” he said.
For three years, they attended the same seminary, St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. St. Petersburg’s bishop also studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he graduated with a Sacred Bachelor of Theology and a Licentiate in Canon Law.
Savannah’s bishop-elect has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing from the University of South Florida and a master’s of divinity degree from the Boynton Beach seminary. He once thought of becoming a doctor.
“After my first year, I did very well, but chemistry and I didn’t get along,” he said. “Priests are doctors of the soul. I feel very blessed that I was able to pursue that, being a physician of the soul.”
His most recent post was pastor of Annunciation Catholic Church in Altamonte Springs. He appears undaunted at the prospect of going from a 4,000-family parish to a diocese of 79,000 Catholics.
“I have a lot of learning to do,” he said, “and I think that God gives us what we need, and he will give me what I need to be the bishop that he has called me to be, and the shepherd that the faithful need and deserve.”
His brother has offered some advice: “I told him three things. First, I said, get to know the people you are called to serve, and love them. Number two, make sure they know you’re there to serve them. And third, I said, before you make any major changes or decisions, make sure you do the first two things.”
The new bishop is hoping that his late brother’s wife, TJ, and daughter, Courtney, will be able to travel for his ordination and installation service. He expects an uncle and aunt, Douglas and Dee Parkes, who took up the gifts of bread and wine for Communion at his brother’s installation as bishop in St Petersburg, to attend. Another uncle, his mother’s brother, John Fencik, and his wife, Michaela, also are expected to be part of the small family group.
His brother will have a special role as a co-consecrator, one of at least three bishops required to lay their hands on a new bishop.
“That’s very special to lay hands on your brother as part of the rite of ordination,” the St. Petersburg bishop said.
Other consecrators will include Bishop John Noonan of the Diocese of Orlando, under whom both brothers were priests, and Archbishop Gregory Hartmayer of Atlanta, the previous bishop of Savannah.
What would their parents have thought about having two bishop sons?
“I think my parents would have been humbled by it,” Bishop-elect Stephen Parkes said. “There is a mystery involved with it, and they would have respected that.”
Losing their mother in 2000, their father two years later and Christopher more recently was difficult, his brother said.
“But our faith tells us that even though they have left us here in this world, we are still spiritually connected to them, and we believe that they help us as we continue on our journey,” he said. “I have always felt that my parents have helped me with their prayers. I know that they are very proud of me and my brother.”