Father Hugh Fitzgerald never got to see the new millennium. While fireworks lit the skies across the globe and people danced in the streets on December 31, 1999, the heart of the 73-year-old St. Michael’s Church leader gave out.
But those who knew and loved the long-time pastor of the Hamilton Park church will be honoring him today (Sunday, Sept. 24) with a musical memorial.
“If you ever wanted a folk hero,” said Deborah King, director of Schola Cantorum on Hudson, “you couldn’t get a better one. On the one hand, he was a deeply spiritual human. On the other hand, he knew how to have fun.”
Father Fitz, as he was known to most, held a daily luncheon for homeless, adopted Vietnamese and Haitian children, delivered mass and communion for shut-ins, and sang bass in the choir that will honor him.
Often on rehearsal night, King said, Fitzgerald’s seat in the church would be empty. He’d be in the kitchen baking cookies for the choir.
“I’d have to go in and say, ‘Father Fitz, it’s time for rehearsal,'” said King.
“‘Oh, yes, yes,’ he’d say.”
Born in 1927 in Kearny, Fitzgerald was ordained in 1953 and then assigned to St. Michael’s. In 1971 he went to St. Mary’s, then for a period of time was chaplain at St. Francis Hospital. In 1979 he returned to St. Michael’s, where he held the position of Pastor until 1997, when four other downtown churches merged into the Parish of the Resurrection and he became parochial vicar.
“He was just a plain parish priest,” said Roxanne Clark, a member of the church and the cantorum. “When he answered the door, he looked like the janitor.”
But the plain parish priest touched many lives. At his funeral service, said Clark, cars drove up on the grass and parishioners long gone from the area came back to pay their respects.
And this past April, the stretch of Ninth Street between Jersey Avenue and Erie Street was renamed “Father Fitzgerald Way.”
“He loved making things,” said Mary Quinn, a member of the cantorum, who said Fitzgerald would go out on “commando raids” on craft stores. “Invariably, you’d find the tables with wreaths in various stages of production.”
The dilapidated but grand church interior has hosted the cantorum since 1995, when Fitzgerald extended an invitation for the group to set up residence.
Alumni from the group along with current members will be performing at the Sunday concert. The concert will feature the Faure Requiemi and other favorite selections of Fitzgerald.
Sister Jean Young had known Fitzgerald since 1960. She remembers a mother calling Fitzgerald one afternoon insisting that the Father see her son at two in the morning. Sister Jean doesn’t remember what the reason was for the call, but she remembers the pastor’s response.
“It’s not my best time,” Fitzgerald said, “but it’s fine.”
The Memorial Concert for Father Hugh Fitzgerald will be held Sun., Sept. 24 at 4 p.m., St. Michael Church, Jersey City. The concert is free. Donations will go to the Hugh V. Fitzgerald Memorial Scholarship Fund. For more information, call 653-2147.