As Father Andrew Bellisario sat down, nearly everyone else in the room stood.
Bellisario, wearing a tall cap and holding a staff, eased himself into the chair at the front of the sanctuary at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church. The chair had been empty since February, when Bishop Edward Burns was assigned to the Catholic Diocese of Dallas.
Now, it was full again, with Bellisario becoming the sixth Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau. The crowd of easily 350 people stood and cheered. Bishops from around the country and about 30 priests from around the state stood behind Bellisario, one of them holding his phone up to document the moment.
Pope Francis and his staff selected Bellisario as the new bishop earlier this year, and Bellisario was introduced on July 11.
“I like to think that at some point when, after the archbishop here submitted names or my name to the Holy Father that (Francis) looked at the sheet of paper and saw the name there and said, ‘I want that guy,’” Bellisario said, to chuckles from the crowd. “’Tell him to get on out there to Juneau and to be a good bishop for the people who live in Southeast Alaska.’”
He was previously the Superior of the International Mission of the Vincentians in Alaska and has been a pastor in Anchorage since 2015.
People came from all over the state and the country for the ceremony, and Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, made the trip from the Vatican. Burns came up from Dallas, the first time he’s been back in Juneau since departing in February.
Burns mingled with old friends prior to the ceremony, joking that “the weather committee for the installation did a great job” with the sunny day Tuesday. Burns, who was Juneau’s bishop for nearly eight years, said he’s had time to meet Bellisario and is looking forward to seeing his work in Juneau.
“He’s dedicated, committed, he’s faithful in so many ways,” Burns said. “All of it is pulled together by his administrative skills and he will be a true blessing for the Diocese. He has a great love for the people and he truly has a shepherd’s heart.”
During the break between the two bishops, Father Pat Travers filled in as the Diocesan Administrator. Travers, based in Ketchikan, took care of mostly business-related duties at the diocese and received a great deal of praise and recognition during Tuesday’s ceremony.
The Diocese of Juneau covers all of Southeast and includes around 10,000 Catholics. As Archbishop of Anchorage Paul D. Etienne said during his homily, the people of Southeast have high expectations for their bishops, and Burns set a high bar.
“For St. Paul also said, ‘I can do all things in Christ, who strengthens me,’” Etienne said, “even walking in the footsteps of Bishop Ed Burns.”
The crowd, which spilled out into the lobby, laughed. People were trickling in throughout the ceremony that lasted just over two hours. One of them, Kalei Wery, said he’s been attending St. Paul the Apostle for 27 years and found it important to be there for Bellisario’s ordination and installation.
Wery complimented Travers’ work, but said it’s different when there’s a permanent bishop in place. Wery arrived in plenty of time to see Bellisario make his remarks. Bellisario adjusted his tall bishop’s hat just after motioning for the priests and attendees to be seated.
“This is gonna take a little getting used to,” Bellisario joked as he stepped to the microphone.
Bellisario thanked Travers and other staff members of the diocese, but spent much of the time at the microphone talking about his family. He told the story of his father coming from Italy and about his maternal grandmother having tickets on the Titanic in 1912 only to arrive to the dock too early and get on another vessel.
The story that stood out was about his mother. While Bellisario was a child, his mother volunteered as the so-called Hot Dog Chairperson at his grade school. She would be there to give food (usually a hot dog, a bag of chips and a Popsicle) to students who didn’t have enough money to buy their own lunch.
Decades later, Bellisario was with his mother at a J.C. Penney in Arcadia, California, when they ran into a middle-aged woman. The woman recognized Bellisario’s mother and thanked her for being there at school to feed her, and Bellisario’s mother even remembered the woman’s name.
Service to others has been a cornerstone of Bellisario’s work with the International Mission of Vincentians, which focuses on volunteer work, and he hopes to maintain that focus in Juneau.
“Jesus would say, ‘Whenever you did that for the least of my brothers, you did it for me,’” Bellisario said. “Thank you mom and dad for teaching me that.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or email@example.com.