By all accounts Michael Sherliza was the iron man of priestly confession. He took confession at practically any hour of any day, sometimes at offbeat locations such as, one time, the corner of a Waffle House.
Confession lines often wrapped around Marietta’s St. Joseph Church when Father Sherliza was in the house. Through confession he met a software developer named Greg White and the two eventually became close friends, with White now even considering becoming a lay deacon.
“When I first met Father Sherliza,” White said recently, “I’d been away from the church many years. I brought him a laundry list of sins.”
He was known as “The Mercy Priest.” A gifted listener when it came to the sufferings of others, for years Sherliza endured more than a few of his own.
His mother Liz Sherliza believes his health problems began when a truck rear-ended his car 25 years ago, causing perpetual back and neck woes. But in recent years he’d s also had diabetes, arthritis, congestive heart failure and colon cancer that disappeared before returning and spreading to his liver.
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“Nobody could come close to his hospital ministry,” said St. Joseph pastor, Monsignor John Walsh. “He had had radiation and surgeries — he knew what it was like to be a patient.”
Several years ago, while recovering from surgery he was summoned to another room to give last rites, which he did from a wheelchair while wearing a hospital gown.
Father Michael Steven Sherliza, 62, a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, died from complications of colon cancer on Oct. 22 surrounded by friends and family, including his three siblings and both his parents. The funeral was Oct. 26 at St. Joseph, where he served the last 10 years as parochial vicar.
Sherliza was born Oct. 2, 1956, in North Attleboro, Mass., the son of a first-generation Polish-American and a mother raised in the Baptist church in Walhalla, SC. Years later, describing the thundering resonance of Michael Sherliza’s voice, Walsh would say, “He had a little bit of the Baptist preacher in him.”
The family moved to Griffin, Ga., when Michael was 12 and by his senior year at Griffin High in 1974 he planned on attending The Citadel for a possible military career.
But on Palm Sunday that year, when asked to be a server at the family parish, Liz said she saw a light dappling her son’s head. “It just appeared for a second or two. … I don’t think Michael knew anything about it — he never said anything about it to me. It was very strange and it bothered me. But a few weeks later, after he returned from a senior trip to Spain he told his father he wanted to be a priest.”
After high school he attended seminary for four years and served one year as novitiate, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1979. He then attended graduate school briefly but left before taking final vows.
For the next 15 years he worked as a trucking dispatcher for several companies and as a security guard.
“He always knew he wanted to be a priest. But he wasn’t sure what is calling was,” Greg White said, “whether to be in a religious order that did traveling revivals, or to be a parish priest.”
In 1995 he enrolled at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans and four years later was ordained as a priest. He served nine years at three different churches before coming to St. Joseph in June 2008, a parish that now has about 5,000 families and offers five celebrations of Mass on Sundays.
When Sherliza moved in, Walsh, who arrived at St. Joseph the same month, couldn’t help noticing “two big crates of books on the front lawn, and then more white containers of books. He was a one-man Amazon Prime.”
White said, “He was as prolific a reader as I’ve ever seen. He had thousands of books. He gave me a reading list to end all lists — I’ll never come close to getting to all of them.”
Sherliza inhaled science fiction and fantasy, theology, particularly regarding the Catholic Church, and world history, particularly the Roman Empire.
He also liked traveling, camping on the Appalachian Trail, gaming and attending DragonCon, often donning his priest’s robes and sprinkling holy water on witches, demons and anyone else he perceived needed it.
But his health was failing, particularly in the last three years. He’d often go to confession with his pain medication, and deliver Mass while leaning on a cane, sometimes his arthritic arm shaking so badly he’d have to grip the altar.
His friend and nurse Barbara Ange said that even in the last few months, when he could no longer work, Sherliza “kept going. He fought so hard,” she said. “Oh, he was obstinate. But that spirit of his! He had that full-throttled laugh even when he was at his weakest.”
Father Bryan Kuhr, Sherliza’s fellow parochial vicar at St. Joseph, believes this “fight” was less obstinacy and more Sherliza’s philosophy of the priesthood.
“He looked at his illness as a gift,” Kuhr said. “His suffering allowed him to become closer to God. He was going to use every ounce of his suffering to offer up for other souls.”
Michael Sherliza is survived by his parents, Robert Joseph and Liz Sherliza, brother Mark Sherliza (Kathy Gant) and sisters, Jane Wier (Charles) and Kathleen Littleton (Mike).