“What I’ve tried to do and be is a pastor to the pastors, to support them, set goals for them, to be approachable and to listen. I want them to be the best priests they can be,” says Auxiliary Bishop Gerald E. Wilkerson about his 18-year ministry serving as shepherd for the million Catholics who live and work in the San Fernando Region of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Before his bishop duties, he spent 32 years as a pastor serving in various Southern California parishes and witnessing the growth and changes — culturally and canonically — that took place in the Greater Los Angeles area since the 1960s.
At 76, Archbishop Wilkerson will officially retire at the end of this year (Bishop-elect Joseph V. Brennan will take over his duties), but the bishop explains that while he will be stepping down, he has no plans to be out of sight.
“I will miss the people but I won’t miss all the meetings,” he says with a laugh. “I want to be available to help in parishes. I want to keep busy with less administration and more ministry. For me, the real satisfaction and fulfillment is working with people, journeying with them in their daily lives.”
Indeed, Bishop Wilkerson’s own journey began with that burning desire to be of service. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, he was a baby when his family moved to California.
Growing up in Long Beach in the 1940s, he recalls the open, friendly atmosphere of his childhood neighborhood as a place where school, friends and church blended together for social and spiritual connections. Families looked out for one another’s kids; you met your friends at church and a “vacant lot could be set up for an impromptu volleyball game with your neighbors.”
Bishop Wilkerson was the oldest of five children and the only one to enter religious life (his youngest sister discerned the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, but did not continue).
The bishop attended elementary and high school at St. Anthony in Long Beach; as an altar server in high school he got a transformational glimpse of life as a priest. Often three or four younger assistant pastors were assigned to the parish to teach and help where needed; their joy in the ministry was infectious.
“Their lives were very attractive to me,” he says. “I remember their happiness of being a priest and being with the people; they seemed fulfilled in what they were doing. They really were my original inspiration.”
After high school, the bishop studied at St. John’s Seminary, where “there was a great sense of camaraderie, especially discussions around the dinner tables,” and he was one of two priests from St. Anthony to be ordained in 1965.
Starting his ministry in the tumultuous 60s, Bishop Wilkerson admitted it took some time transitioning from seminary student to priest, but was fortunate to be assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in La Habra in a nascent Orange County community where social lives interconnected with the thriving church and big elementary school.
His next assignment took him to the inner city, which offered deeper life lessons that nurtured his ongoing dedication to create welcoming communities.
“It was there I really understood what it meant to be a priest,” he says about his seven-year tenure at St. Michael in Los Angeles. He was assigned right after the Watts riots and emotions were still raw. Parishioners — mostly African-American — were leery he wouldn’t stay for long.
“They felt abandoned,” he says, adding that despite living in poverty, unemployment and in a high-crime area, these people “did not lose faith even when they were being discriminated against. They are decent, kind-hearted and caring people. I learned so much from their struggles and was humbled by them. It was very hard to leave them. They really became my family.”
Following St. Michael, the bishop served at American Martyrs in Manhattan Beach and later ventured into a new territory: the San Fernando Valley. He remembers telling Cardinal Roger Mahony, “‘Whatever you do, please don’t send me to the Valley!’ Well, that turned out to be a big blessing.”
For 14 years, Bishop Wilkerson led Our Lady of Grace parish in Encino through challenging times. When he started in 1982, the community was mainly Anglo, but in the late 1980s, the demographics changed, with more Hispanic, Vietnamese and Korean members filling up the pews. He started a Spanish-language Mass and was determined that, instead of bringing in a Spanish-speaking priest, “we would do it. So I brought in a tutor who helped us, me and the staff, learn the language.”
Even though he bungled the language often in those early homilies, the bishop was pleased when, after Mass, Spanish-speakers “would approach me and say ‘Father, this is the word you were looking for.’ They were so pleased we were trying. It really brought us together as a church.”
“Father Gerry had and has a welcoming heart,” declares Notre Dame Sister Emilie Ann Palladino, adult formation director, who was hired by and worked with the bishop numerous years. She describes his Ministry of the Parking Lot, his idea of connecting to others in simple places.
“He told us that you never know who you will meet up with and what potential powerful moment you could have with another person,” she says adding that “his delightful sense of humor put anyone at ease.”
Sister Emilie Ann also remembers the bishop’s ordination at Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1998, pre-Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. To deal with the potential parking overload, the bishop and staff coordinated efforts with neighboring houses of worship — Jewish synagogue, Mormon temple, Armenian church — to use their lots.
“We had such a good relationship with them, it wasn’t a problem. They were all thrilled that Father Gerry was being ordained,” says Sister Emilie Ann. “It wasn’t just a celebration for the Catholics, but the whole community.”
Shifting gears to his new duties, Bishop Wilkerson used his position to continue to reach out to those in need, including immigrant populations, the role of women and laity in the Church and the issue of euthanasia with the California Catholic Conference — all timely issues.
The bishop was so inspired by a group of local women who did evangelization outreach that he created a special committee dedicated to helping his parishes with resources and support.
“It only exists because the bishop was so forward and outward thinking,” says Kay Harter, current director of evangelization for the San Fernando Region. “He set the priorities and had the vision of evangelization and supports us in every step. At every deanery meeting, it’s the first thing discussed — this is indeed a priority.”
Like many, Harter will miss Bishop Wilkerson upon his retirement.
“He has taught me to be genuine and build relationships that are real,” she says. “In essence, that’s why evangelization is all about — Christ in your life coming across loud and clear with no pretense. And when you think about it, that describes Bishop Wilkerson to a tee.”