By M.C. Havey
Since his death on All Saints Day, heart-felt tributes have been paid about Father William Edmund Fitzgerald as a thoughtful pastor and homilist, and a gentle man.
“I was captivated by his preaching, his laid back style, his humility, his connection to the people and his insights,” observed Father Joseph Ruta at the wake service on November 7th at St. Patrick’s church, Toronto, where Fr. Fitzgerald had served for 23 years.
“Fr. Fitz was a good pastor and gentle confessor; filled with wisdom and compassion. He kindled in me my desire for the priesthood and community life with the Redemptorists,” Fr. Ruta continued. “From the beginning, Fr. Bill was one of my heroes.”
Father Fitzgerald died at the age of 84 on November 1st in Toronto Western Hospital after collapsing six weeks previously. His body was buried in the Redemptorist plot in Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto.
Born on August 26, 1938, William Fitzgerald was the oldest of three sons, born to Edmund Alphonsus Fitzgerald and Helen Margaret Corkery in Saint John, NB. Joseph, his twin brother, was born 59 minutes later and Paul four years younger. When Bill was nine years old, the family moved to the city’s north end and the Redemptorist parish of St. Peter’s, where his parents had been married.
At St. Peter’s, Bill was educated at the parish schools and joined the altar boys, learning the Latin responses in one week with the help of his father. “And it was here – and at this age – as an altar boy in St. Peter’s Redemptorist church that I am positive the desire to become a Redemptorist first developed to grow.” St. Peter’s was an active and large parish in the 1950s, “where your total life was an involvement in the parish community,” he wrote in 1989. “We practically lived here at the parish, the scouts, the bowling alley, the basketball, the baseball field, skating rink in the winter time and the altar boys.”
From St. Peter’s, he studied at the juvenate St. Mary’s College, outside of Brockville, Ontario, which he described as “the four happiest years of my life.” After the novitiate year at St. Alphonsus seminary in Woodstock, Ontario, he was committed to Redemptorist life. “Now that the year is over, only happy and lasting impressions are mine. We have been shown the way,” he wrote. “Now it remains for us, with the help of God’s grace and Mary’s intercession, to preserve. We have learnt a great deal and I only hope we’ll be able to put it all into practice.” He professed first vows on August 22, 1958 at the seminary just before the seminary was closed.
Studies followed at the newly-opened Holy Redeemer College in Windsor, Ontario and at the city’s Assumption University, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1961 and bachelor of theology degree in 1964, as part of the new educational approach for confreres to earn university degrees. He was ordained at the Windsor seminary on August 29, 1964, a year prior to the end of Second Vatican Council sessions.
For the next 58 years, he experienced the changes within the Church and the diminishing numbers among the Canadian Redemptorists. After a few months in 1965 as a downtown Toronto hospital chaplain, stationed at St. Patrick’s, he returned to St. Mary’s College until 1968 as director of students, professor of history and mathematics, coach of all the sports teams, including an all-star hockey team and the St. Lawrence B basketball champions.
When the college closed, Father Fitzgerald began 50 years of parish appointments, starting with Holy Redeemer in Charlottetown (1968-1975). For the next four parishes, he served as pastor and superior: St. Alphonsus, Windsor (1975-1984), where he inspired Fr. Ruta’s vocation; the home parish of St. Peter’s, Saint John (1984-1992); Holy Redeemer, Sudbury (1993-1999) and St. Patrick’s, Toronto (1999-2004), where he continued pastoral assistance almost until his death. The Redemptorists have withdrawn from all his parish appointments, except St. Patrick’s. Elected as a consultor in 1978 and 1981, he participated in the Toronto Province’s difficult decisions to withdraw from three parishes, St. Peter and Paul in Harbour Main, NL, and St. Alphonsus in both Peterborough, and Windsor, where he was the pastor.
During the pastoral appointments, he developed into an extraordinary, articulate and thoughtful homilist, intermingling humour with the ever important personal connection. Father Ray Earle, in his homily at Fr. Fitzgerald’s Mass of Christian Burial at St. Patrick’s, praised the “clear, concise way he would break open the Word and apply it to the lives of ordinary people. … He spoke words of encouragement in his homilies, at the back of the church, and in the confessional.”
In the parishes, Father Fitzgerald was proactive, establishing a parish refugee committee and presiding over the restoration of the 111-year-old art in the Windsor church. In his home parish of St. Peter’s, he coordinated the 100-anniversary celebrations of the parish in 1984, the opening of the access ramp to the church, and the construction of the St. Peter’s Non-Profit Housing project on the church grounds. In Sudbury, he oversaw the construction of the new 600-seat church, designed by a city architectural firm, and included the natural elements of Northern Ontario.
Among confreres, Father Fitzgerald was a man of community life. “Virtually every evening, Father Bill was in the common room looking at baseball or hockey or the news. He loved to just chat with the others in the community as we gathered,” noted Father Earle, who recalled a visit with him in August to Mount Hope cemetery. “We stopped at each of the graves of the many Redemptorists that Bill and I had lived with through the years, and reminisced about their lives. We told some humourous tales and we said a prayer for all who are buried there.”
In these later years, the arrival of the international confreres, many of whom lived at St. Patrick’s, inspired Father Bill by their culture, missionary zeal, unique perspectives, and attentiveness to prayer, community and study. “Some of these confreres were like his spiritual children,” observed Father Ruta. “Judging by the emails from India, New Zealand, Vietnam and the Philippines, the admiration and respect was mutual.”
It was Saint John, where his ties were always the deepest. In the presence of family and friends, Father Fitzgerald celebrated the silver jubilee of his ordination at an outdoor Mass on the grounds of St. Peter’s. For his 50th anniversary, he looked from the altar of his home church, crowded to capacity with family and friends. “It was a great celebration,” he said, greeting well-wishers and old friends for three hours before and during the reception in the parish hall.
On November 18th at a memorial Mass in Saint John, Monsignor Brian Sheehan, a friend, looked from the altar of Our Lady of Assumption Church, where Father Fitzgerald had been baptized, received First Communion and Confirmation, to see the pews filled with relatives and friends. Noting the Maritime traits, he was always welcoming, warm, and friendly with a perennial smile that seemed to be imprinted on his face.” Sheehan noted in his homily. “He was a happy priest because he was a happy person.”