By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
As a boy growing up in Tarija, a small Bolivian city bordering the countries of Argentina and Paraguay, Deacon Wilfredo Fernandez said he was more interested in pursuing sports than going to church.
Decades later, Deacon Fernandez, 34, is excitedly waiting to be ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Louisville May 28, along with Deacon Sean McKinley. Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz will preside at the 11 a.m. service at the Cathedral of the Assumption, 433 S. Fifth St.
Deacon Fernandez, the son of Martin Fernandez and Sergia Panica, is the fifth of seven children. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis, Ind., and a master’s degree in theology from Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wis.
Deacon Fernandez said the re-awakening of his Catholic faith came during his high school years when he discovered and joined a Charismatic Renewal group at a local church. He was drawn, he said, to the “joyful” way in which the group worshipped.
The seed that led to the priesthood was sown when he met Father Godolfredo Zils, a retired German priest serving in Bolivia who celebrated Mass for the Charismatic group.
“Father Godolfredo was a great example of a person I wanted to be like,” said Deacon Fernandez.
Father Zils, who the deacon described as “caring” and having “no prejudices,” was a diocesan priest and a missionary who’d lived most his life in South America.
“He felt God wanted him to learn a new language and serve on a different continent,” said Deacon Fernandez. “Talking to him and seeing him serve as a priest inspired me. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Father Zils, he said, also had helped him to connect with discernment groups.
Following graduation from high school, Deacon Fernandez, said he tried several careers, mainly in the technical field, but none seemed to fit.
“My parents said they were tired of paying my bills,” he joked. During this time, Deacon Fernandez was discerning a vocation to the priesthood as well. The long road to the priesthood, strewn with “joys,” “disappointments,” “excitement,” and “challenges,” began with him discerning a vocation with a Franciscan order in Tarija when he was 18, he said.
After two years, Deacon Fernandez said, he realized being a religious priest was not his path. A better fit would soon come about when he entered San Cristobal Seminary in Sucre, Bolivia’s capital city, to discern a vocation as a diocesan priest.
After discerning for three years, a friendship between San Cristobal and the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., led to an invitation for him to travel to the United States in September of 2006.
Deacon Fernandez said he never imagined he’d leave Bolivia, but was excited when this opportunity came about.
In Illinois, Deacon Fernandez enrolled at Lewis University to study English. His path then led to Conception Seminary College in Conception, Mo., where after a brief discernment period, he decided to leave the seminary for a time.
During this period outside the seminary, Deacon Fernandez said he met Father William Bowling, who was pastor of the Church of the Annunciation in Shelbyville, Ky., at the time. Father Bowling, a former director of the Vocation Office for the Archdiocese of Louisville, invited him to visit, said Deacon Fernandez, adding that he immediately liked the area.
In 2010 the deacon moved to the Archdiocese of Louisville where he stepped back on the path to the priesthood.
Deacon Fernandez — who admits to loving fast cars and being a big fan of the Star Wars movies — said he’s looking forward to being a priest. This vocation, he said, “moves” him and brings him “joy.”
Deacon Fernandez said he’s interested in working with culturally diverse groups within the church.
“I’m looking forward to celebrating Mass for these different communities,” he said.
He noted that he’d like to “act as a mediator” in order to foster a better understanding between the different groups and the larger church. Deacon Fernandez has been assigned as associate pastor at the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Ky., and at St. Michael Church in Fairfield, Ky.
“My hope is to be able to integrate into that community,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that. It’ll be a new challenge.”
Deacon Fernandez’s parents, two of his siblings, a niece and a nephew will travel from Bolivia to witness his ordination.
He will celebrate Masses of Thanksgiving at St. Joseph Church, 1406 E. Washington Street, on May 28 at 4 p.m. and at St. Bartholomew Church, 2042 Buechel Bank Road, on May 29 at 11:15 a.m.