WINDSOR TERRACE — A longtime lay worker for the Diocese of Brooklyn known for her dedication and profound humility is the National Association for Lay Ministry’s (NALM) 2021 pick for its Juan Diego Award.
Nelsa I. Elías is the facilitator for Catechetical Program Outreach at the diocese’s Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis. She works with pastors, directors of education (DREs), and volunteer teachers, advising them on educational programs for children, kindergarten through 8th grade.
Saint Juan Diego, the visionary of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico in 1531, is the inspiration for a national award, which honors people in ministry who inspire other laypeople to share the Gospel.
Elías has also served on the board of directors of the Chicago-based NALM, which held a virtual ceremony on June 10 to present the award.
“When I got the phone call, I was so surprised,” Elias said. “I had been on the board and award committees, but I never thought I’d be on the receiving end.
“I felt, and do feel, very humbled to receive this award, and I feel honored for the diocese.”
According to NALM, the award “recognizes an outstanding witness to the spirit and values embodied in the life of the lay minister Juan Diego, the first saint of the Americas.”
Elías has “shown faith, patience, and commitment to Gospel values and has been an inspiration to other laypeople to accept responsibility as people of God,” the NALM said in a statement.
Elías’ humble acceptance of the honor is so characteristic of her, according to her work colleagues.
Father Joseph R. Gibino, the vicar for the office of Evangelization and Catechesis, called her the “catechist of the catechists” and “the great enabler.”
“She enables the DREs to put together programs that are the lifelong faith formation for children,” he said. “Her role is to really help the directors of religious education to work with their children and their families to bring the Gospel to life, both in the classroom, but also through programs that are family-oriented.”
Father Gibino said Elías works with 186 educational programs overseen by the pastors, parish administrators, or DRE’s.
“So, there are a lot of moving pieces and a lot of personalities,” he said. “It’s not so difficult, but it is time-consuming and requires a lot of patience and energy.
“There’s a lot of paperwork involved. When people ask questions, we have answers. So that requires reading. A good part of my day is spent reading documents, organizing documents, speaking with the pastors and the DREs — keeping the pipeline flowing.”
But the office’s staff has fewer than a dozen people, so the team members frequently pitch in to help each other, Father Gibino said. Still, Elías is ever faithful when it becomes “all hands on deck.”
“The office is one of complete trust and collaboration,” he added. “We are ministers together. And that helps all of us get through what can be some really overwhelming days.
“The secretariat oversees all of the faith-formation programs of the diocese. So we’re in the business of evangelization, spreading the Gospel, and catechesis — faith formation. Our office oversees the religious education programs for children and the youth ministries.
“We also oversee the Holy Spirit Institute, which is the adult faith-formation branch that prepares adults to work with adults. And we oversee all of the pro-life initiatives. So we’re a busy secretariat.
“But Nelsa is a wonderful example of a dedicated lay worker in the church who labors for the spread of the Gospel. She reads, she studies, she’s open to working with all of the DREs, and she’s competent. All of that comes out when you speak of Nelsa.”
Father Gibino said Nelsa’s receiving the Juan Diego award is also a reflection of excellence in the diocese.
“I couldn’t be happier for her,” he said. “She brings an honor to the diocese, and she brings it with great dignity.”
Elías was born in Puerto Rico but came to the U.S. as a baby and grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn. She earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Queens College. She later became a paralegal for American International Group (AIG) in Manhattan.
In 2000, however, Elías felt a calling to enter church ministry. She said one of her mentors, Father James Hughes, inspired her, as did her mother, Anaida Elías.
“She is my rock, and she has been my role model as a person of faith since I was knee-high,” Elías said. She also draws inspiration from her son, Noel Mendez, who is an IT consultant in Brooklyn.
The Diocese of Brooklyn hired Elías, who served in several lay ministry roles. She completed the diocesan Lay Ministry Program in 2003. She went on to earn a master’s degree in theology from St. John’s University, Jamaica, Queens.
Father Hughes currently serves as parochial vicar for Corpus Christi Parish, Woodside, Queens.
“I have always admired her zeal to serve the church and develop lay ministry here in the diocese at all levels,” Father Hughes said. “As a layperson, a woman, and a Latina, I feel she is a key role model for others.”
Elías is a member of Our Lady of the Angelus Parish in Rego Park, Queens. She said she is uncomfortable talking about herself, but she is happy to share how the work blesses her.
“My job entails a lot of reporting,” she said. “but I feel the most rewarding part of my job is I do accompany the DREs on their ministry journeys, whether they’re new or seasoned.
“Pope Francis reminds us we are to be a church that accompanies other people, and Father Gibino absolutely agrees with that.”
Elías further explained that “accompanying people” means “being a source of encouragement, listening, helping them see the bigger picture.”
“Sometimes people might be overwhelmed,” she said, “so I try to help them see the good in what they are doing. I try to help them find their giftedness. They already have it; they just need it pointed out to them.”