Having worked with Bishop Coleman on several occasions both before his ordination to the episcopate and afterwards, I can attest that he is an shy, gentle, and softspoken man. However, don't let his demeanor fool you. This bishop is no pushover.
He was not what the people expected.
The diocese that produced two cardinals in the past 35 years was accustomed to a larger-than-life leader — one who speaks the languages of all their forebears or wears simple monk's robes and sandals or deftly handles scandalous troubles swept under the rug for centuries. They wanted him to wade through a room with the ease of a Hollywood press agent and make them howl with laughter at his quick, ironic wit.
The diocese of Cardinal Humberto Medeiros and Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley awaited another superstar.
Instead, native son the Most Rev. George W. Coleman was elected diocesan administrator by his peers and shortly after was named the seventh bishop of Fall River by Pope John Paul II.
Bishop Coleman may not be what the people anticipated, but four years into his stewardship, the diocese is staying its course.
During one of the most volatile periods in American Catholic Church history — the clergy abuse scandal ignited in 2001 — the Diocese of Fall River has run without the vitriol that has plagued the Boston Archdiocese. Last year, the Catholic Charities Appeal, which funds diocesan agencies and ministries, missed its goal by a slight margin, reaching a total of $3,936,578, a decrease of 3.3 percent from that of the previous year.
At the helm sits a bishop who is still amazed, four years later, that he is the leader of 350,000 parishioners.
"Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think this would happen," he told The Standard-Times in an interview a few days before his ordination on July 22, 2003.
Granting one of the few interviews he has sanctioned during his tenure, the bishop sits at a conference table in his Fall River office. He seems at ease. He is warm and engaging, and he laughs often.
"I don't know if I can describe my leadership style," he said. "I don't want to be the person who accomplishes something. It's the church that accomplishes something good."
Years ago while talking with then Msgr. Coleman I said, half joking and fully serious, that he would be a bishop someday. There was something about him that looked episcopal. His response was, "Please, don't do that to me!"
Photo by Domini Sumus