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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Priest leaves legacy of love


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he news arrived in tandem: an archbishop found, a priest lost.

The selection of Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley to lead the embattled Archdiocese of Boston was bound to garner more headlines, but the death of the Rev. Gerald J. Fitzgerald could not have generated more grief. Fitzgerald, who was two weeks shy of his 57th birthday, died in his sleep over the weekend.

From Dorchester to Chelsea, from Belmont to Winchester, tears of Haitian and Hispanic immigrants mixed with those of assimilated Irish- and Italian-Americans for the man they knew as a brother as much as a Father. ''He was more than a priest to me,'' said Kam Sylvestre, a native of Haiti, who last saw Father Gerry in mid-June when the priest came to Our Lady of Grace in Chelsea, as he did twice a month, to say Mass in Creole. A month earlier, the priest had blessed the Sylvestres' new home in Medford during a family celebration. ''He was there for us, for everything.''

So much a part of his parishioners' lives was Gerry Fitzgerald that his relatives felt they shared him with a huge extended family. ''We'd want to see him more, but he'd be going to christen this one or marry that one or comfort someone else,'' said his sister-in-law, Susan Fitzgerald of Walpole. ''It's what made him such a special priest.''

On Saturday, Father Gerry was expected in a Wayland backyard to officiate at Kevin and Ginny Conway's renewal of vows on their 25th wedding anniversary. When he had not arrived by lunch, the large Conway clan suspected something was terribly amiss, rejecting the suggestion of guests that it was a long drive from Somerville, where he served as pastor of St. Ann's. ''He wouldn't be late unless something was very wrong,'' insisted Betsy Conway, a Sister of St. Joseph, who spoke from 30 years of experience seeing Father Gerry at her family's table, around its piano, and at all its sad and joyous occasions. She dialed his telephone number and jumped at the sound of car doors slamming for the rest of the long afternoon. Something, she knew, was wrong.

The Conways met the priest in 1973 when, newly ordained, he was assigned to St. Joseph's in Belmont. The family was grieving the loss of one of its nine children when Father Gerry came along, confirming for Betsy, then 14, that ''when God closes a door he really does open a window. Gerry was our window. Through him, I moved from anger at Mark's death to gratitude for my brother's life.'' The light she saw in the young priest, she said, guided her own spiritual journey.

From saying an annual anniversary Mass for Mark, Father Gerry went on to marry a generation of Conways, to baptize their children, to bury their parents, all the while moving through parishes in and around Boston, connecting with hundreds of other families.

He met Sylvestre at St. Matthew's in Dorchester, just before the priest went off for the first of dozens of trips to Haiti to minister to relatives his parishioners had left behind. Over the years, he matched parishes in Haiti with sister churches in Boston and brought Bostonians south to help build schools and houses. He served as Sylvestre's sponsor when the young man was confirmed. He officiated at his wedding and baptized his daughter, all while assigned elsewhere.

''Everyone was family to Gerry,'' said his sister-in-law. ''He spread himself pretty thin sometimes, but you never saw him without a smile on his face.''

Well, maybe once or twice. That time, for instance, when he ran afoul of the chancery in the 1980s for refusing to pay federal taxes to protest the nuclear arms race. ''He was always struggling to be true to the Gospel, and sometimes it didn't sit too well with those in authority,'' said Sister Betsy, laughing.

Father Gerry was to have returned to Haiti in August. Friends and family intend to remember him with donations to St. Laurent Parish in Les Cayes c/o St. Ann's, 100 Temple St., Somerville, MA 02145. He will lie in state at St. Ann's today from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. His funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 7/2/2003.
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