by Marie Elena Giossi
It is not every day that an altar boy from Ridgewood grows up to be a bishop.
And when that boy-turned-bishop is a humble, hard-working monsignor, it is a great blessing – not only for the Church but also for the people closest to his heart.
News of Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger’s episcopal appointment astounded his close-knit family, which is now largely based in Warwick, N.Y. And perhaps no one was happier than his parents, Edward, 94, and Elaine, 93, of Warwick, who were blessed to have their first-born son share the news in person.
“I was stunned,” his father said on a recent afternoon from his home. “To this day, I get up in the morning and wonder, ‘Is this real?’”
His wife of 68 years assures him it is indeed real and true. “We were overwhelmed, and we still are. This is new to us,” Elaine said. “We are all very excited and grateful to God.”
On the morning of the official announcement, Elaine shared the news with the bishop’s four younger siblings: Miriam Muse, Dennis, James and Lois Sheptuck.
“I was speechless,” said Miriam Muse, who is one-and-a-half years her brother’s junior.
“My mother called and said in a measured tone, ‘I have some news,’” recalled Muse, who also lives in Warwick. “She quickly added, ‘but it’s not bad. Your brother is going to be the bishop of Albany.’”
Muse hoped he might be named an auxiliary bishop one day but never imagined he’d become an ordinary with his own diocese.
Pope Francis As a Model
While she knows her brother is “extremely qualified” for this office, she was surprised by his appointment because he is one of the “least ambitious” people – much like Pope Francis, whom he admires.
“I think he’s very much going to model his bishopric on Pope Francis,” she said. “He wants to have simplicity in his example.”
Simplicity characterized the bishop’s life growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in Queens. His family attended Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church, Ridgewood. He and his siblings went to the parish school and saw their parish priests as role models.
“Our lives were centered around our church, family and community,” Muse said.
“We always went to church as a family,” remembers Lois Sheptuck, the bishop’s youngest sibling. “We wouldn’t miss a Sunday for anything.”
For the Scharfenbergers, faith was more than just something practiced at church and at school.
“Faith was an ever-present part of our life,” Sheptuck said. “With everything, we learned to either thank God or ask for His assistance.”
At home, the family often gathered to pray the rosary around a statue of the Blessed Mother and listen to Bishop Fulton Sheen on the radio.
“We always strived to be a good example,” his father said, “to live the lessons of Christ.”
Surrounded by a loving family and encouraged by parish priests, the bishop was able to recognize and properly consider his vocation from an early age.
As a child, “he liked to play that he was a priest,” his mother said. “He’d celebrate Mass, and he’d get his brothers and sisters to be parishioners.”
So it was no surprise that her eldest son gravitated toward the Church: serving as an altar server in his youth, attending the high school seminary and answering phones in the rectory.
During his teenage years, the bishop would use the wages he earned in the rectory to take his little sister on cultural adventures in Manhattan. On weekends, they’d go to the opera, plays and ethnic restaurants. “He treated me to some wonderful meals,” she recalls.
She said her brother still enjoys traveling, plays, music and food. Not only does he like sampling cuisines, but he’s also “a good cook” with Thai and Brazilian dishes in his repertoire.
If he hadn’t become a priest, Muse thinks her brother would have become a pilot and traveled the world learning about other cultures.
His appreciation for different cultures and peoples as well as his facility with several foreign languages are just some of the qualities that his family knows will serve him well in Albany.
“Edward is enormously good at reaching out to people,” his father said. “One of his best qualities is relating to people one-on-one.”
A listening ear and a compassionate heart are two of the bishop’s greatest strengths according to his younger brother, Dr. Dennis Scharfenberger.
“Edward is very insightful,” his mother added. “He has a good mind and thinks things through and makes good decisions.”
“Knowing my brother, he’s going to put his heart and soul into his ministry in Albany,” Sheptuck said.
“He’s very personable, articulate, a good communicator and he has a good sense of humor.”
As for any challenges that lay ahead, Sheptuck says, “I think my brother sees them as opportunities,” and she’s confident he’ll rise to any occasion set before him. She believes her brother is happiest when he’s able “to serve, to be a model of the faith and to minister to people.
“He’s such an intelligent, talented individual,” she added. “I admire him very much.”
While it may be difficult to leave his native diocese, Sheptuck says her brother “understands that part of being in service to the Lord is moving from place to place. I think he’s going to embrace this opportunity to nurture the faith in Albany.”