Although they come from very different backgrounds, the Revs. Manuel Perez and Peter Iorio have begun their assignments at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Johnson City with the same attitude toward fostering a vibrant community of faith in Northeast Tennessee.
Perez, associate pastor of St. Mary’s, is from Mexico and was ordained in 2005. He came to the United States in 2000 and attended seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Chicago before becoming ordained into the local Diocese of Knoxville.
Perez’s first assignment was an associate pastor at Chattanooga’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Before coming to St. Mary’s, where he had spent a short time as a seminarian in 2001, Perez spent three years at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville.
Perez said becoming a priest and accepting an assignment at a parish is all part of what God has called him to do in order to see the faith of the community continue to grow.
“As a priest coming to St. Mary’s, it’s bringing my faith alive to this community. It’s allowed this community to be Christ for me and me Christ for them,” he said.
For Iorio, coming into the position of pastor at St. Mary’s is a return to the Tri-Cities region after he spent two years at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in Kingsport after being ordained in 1993.
“I had a beautiful experience when I was at St. Dominic’s, though I was surprised that I was moved up here, but it’s a beautiful area. A lot has changed in 16 years. The interstate now is all the way through to Asheville (N.C.). That wasn’t here back in the ’90s,” he said.
Following his position at St. Dominic’s, Iorio was assigned to a number of parishes in the state, including his hometown of Chattanooga, where he spent a number of years as chaplain of Notre Dame High School, and Sacred Heart Cathedral.
Most recently, Iorio was assigned to St. Thérése of Lisieux in Cleveland, Tenn., where he spent two years as pastor.
While both men have only been at St. Mary’s for a little more than a month, they are excited to see how the Catholic community of Johnson City will grow.
“It’s a vibrant community, a university community. We have a school here. I love working with children in Catholic education, so along with my excitement there is a challenge, but the Lord is in charge and that’s what we were ordained to do is serve in his name,” Iorio said.
That dedication to serving both God and the people of a parish is something Perez and Iorio share.
Perez said he came from a strong Catholic family in Mexico and first felt called to join the priesthood when he was about 15 years old in order work with those who were less fortunate.
“I wanted to be the voice for the ones who are not listened to,” he said.
After first enrolling in seminary when he was a teenager, Perez later decided priesthood wasn’t for him. It wasn’t until he came to the states when he realized that passion was still very much a part of his life.
Iorio’s journey is a little different. He got an education at Notre Dame High School, where he said he was very active in both the local parish and his faith. When wrestling with the decision of what to do with his life, Iorio said he couldn’t imagine being able to work past fears of priestly duties like publicly speaking, working with the sick and dealing with people’s issues on a daily basis.
It wasn’t until college when he spent a semester abroad in the “very Catholic country” of Ireland that led to his calling into the priesthood.
“Being in a space where I could hear the Lord calling me, encouraging me, and affirming me, it was there that I decided to say ‘yes’ and just have a deeper faith that the Lord would give me what I need to serve,” he said.
The St. Mary’s community has been very supportive in welcoming both Perez and Iorio into the church family, which is something that sometimes provides a challenge when moving around from parish to parish.
“I think people are very excited but at the same time, they are hungry for God’s word. That’s the sense I get from them. They welcome us in a very special way and that means a lot to us,” Perez said.
The logistics of working with a large church community isn’t always easy, but Iorio said it’s the guidance of God that helps he and Perez work so closely to take care of community.
“Jesus said, ‘Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst,’ and I truly believe with the presence of Jesus within the community, it’s really he who is the pastor, the good shepherd and we just his ministers, his instruments,” Iorio said.