I am woefully late in posting this tribute to a great priest of the diocese who recently went home to the “house of the Father”. Father Christopher Fitzgerald, IC a priest for fifty-six years died just as I was leaving for Rome and the ordination to the diaconate of Rev. Mr. Ryan Boyle. It is interesting to me that on the very day I was ordained to the diaconate at St. Clement’s parish church in Fort Lauderdale by the late Archbishop Edward McCarthy, a wonderful Lithuanian priest with whom I lived at St. James parish in North Miami, suffered a major and eventually fatal heart attack (Father George Razutis) and I went right to his hospital room after the ordination and I have not forgotten what he said to me then: “It is all right, Bob, today God gives his Church a new priest and takes to Himself an old one.” When I arrived in Rome and learned of Father Fitz’s death, I immediately thought of that moment thirty-seven years ago.
Father Chris’ final years were spent in the loving care of his long-time Associate Pastor at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Seffner, Father Michael O’Neill. Aided by a staff which clearly loved their founding pastor, they were all able to take care of him until skilled nursing care was required but they never abandoned him to the loneliness of a nursing home but were present to him as often as they could be. Father Fitzgerald was ordained a priest in 1958 having been born in Ballyporeen in County Tipperary, Ireland on January 3, 1932. He was ordained as a member of a religious order called the “Institute of Charity” in Tanzania and served his first two years there before having to leave because of serious health issues. His order sent him to Florida where he first served for eleven years at Blessed Sacrament in Seminole and then briefly in Port Charlotte and then St. Paul, St. Petersburg.
In 1973, he became pastor of St. Anne Church in Ruskin where he served for fourteen years. While there he fell in love with the growing Hispanic population, mostly Mexican and strove not just to minister to them but to learn their language as much as he could. He was a faithful son of Anthony Rosmini who founded the Institute of Charity to serve the poor and needy in a diocesan priest-like formation and ministry program. Rosmini was ahead of his times in many ways and irritated the established clerical system of the time and found himself condemned in a way by the Holy Office (now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). The fathers of his order, however, continued to pursue the charism of their founder despite the “cloud” under which Rosmini stood. Father Fitz gave me a copy of a biography of Rosmini when I first came and I found it fascinating. The I.C.’s staff the parishes of Blessed Sacrament Seminole, St. Theresa in Spring Hill, and St. Francis of Assisi in Seffner and they have been great priests in this diocese and we are indebted to them.
In 1987, Father Fitzgerald was made the first pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish, newly abuilding in Seffner with parishioners “cut off” from the then gigantic Nativity parish in Brandon (much to the chagrin of the Brandon pastor at that time, Monsignor Jaime Lara, who was still complaining about the “theft” in 1996 when I came here as bishop in 1996). St. Francis under Father Chris’ leadership became quite a faith community and the turn-out for this funeral (nine days after his death) attested to the love which they had for him. During his time there, his order chose him as Provincial of the Province in the United States and he had to travel more than he would have liked because he missed the parish so much. His contribution to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg as my personal delegate placed him right where he and Rosmini would have liked him to be – on the front lines of charity. Father Fitzgerald would live to see the total rehabilitation by no less a person than Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the same Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which once had condemned Anthony Rosmini and he was able to attend his beatification in Rome. Now Pope Benedict XVI would beatify Anthony Rosmini in November, 2007.
Every bishop when he buries a priest buries a brother in the priestly ministry and I am finding it increasingly difficult to preside over these moments because I am saying good-bye to my contemporaries who in so many ways have served the Church better than perhaps I have. Father Fitz and I had a special relationship and he asked that I both celebrate his funeral Mass and preach at it as well. Twelve hours after getting off the plane from Rome, I did as asked and I wish to share with you my homily for this great priest which you can read by clicking here.