The Rev. John G. Fitzgerald, or “Father Fitz,” as he was known to contemporaries, was the first resident Roman Catholic priest in Old Forge. He is fondly remembered as a missionary to the widely scattered working people of the region and as a prolific builder of churches. His obituary in 1925 and local histories rightly focus on his time in Old Forge, but Father Fitzgerald had a significant career prior to that. His early assignments reveal a resourceful and energetic clergyman who made an impact across the Adirondacks and North Country. He served the people of northern New York State for a total of 49 years providing faith, culture, and kindness.
John Gerald Fitzgerald was probably born November 19, 1850 in Deptford, Kent, England (now part of Greater London). His parents, Patrick Fitzgerald and Joanna O’Connor, were both born in Ireland. John was educated in Catholic schools in England, namely: Blackheath; Sedgley Park in Wolverhampton; and St. Edmund’s in Ware, Hertfordshire. Records from St. Edmund’s show that a John Fitzgerald attended the school from 1868 until 1871. Soon after, John emigrated to the United States where he attended St. Joseph’s Provincial Seminary in Troy, NY. He was sponsored by the recently established Diocese of Ogdensburg. At seminary, John served as choirmaster and developed what would become a lifelong interest in music. He was ordained at Troy by Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid of Rochester on June 10, 1876.
Father John’s first assignment for the Diocese of Ogdensburg was a short posting as assistant pastor in 1876 at St. Joseph’s Church, Essex, NY. At that time, St. Joseph’s was a mission of Keesville.
In November 1876, Father Fitzgerald was assigned to a pastorate at Copenhagen in Lewis County. Copenhagen was the location of the rectory, but had no church. The pastor was also responsible for three villages: Montague, Harrisburg, and Pinckney, each of which did have churches. By 1878, Fitzgerald was gaining a reputation in the county as an advocate of temperance. He was also responsible for frescoing the churches at Harrisburg and Pinckney, purchasing organs, and organizing choirs. On September 5, 1878, after preaching a farewell sermon at Pinckney to a large congregation, Father Fitzgerald left on a ten-week trip to “European countries.” The diocese has no record of an official trip by Fitzgerald, so this may have been a vacation following the second anniversary of his ordination. After his return, he spoke at a July 4th celebration at Copenhagen in 1879. A newspaper reporter said “The eloquence of Father Fitzgerald is well known, but we think that on this occasion he even surpassed all his previous efforts. The reverend gentleman is a deep historian… Father Fitzgerald is an extempore and graceful speaker, and is the happy possessor of a rich, clear and ringing voice.”
In February 1881, Father Fitzgerald was assigned to Holy Name Church at Ausable Forks in the eastern Adirondacks. Ausable Forks was then a center for iron mining, and the parish included many miners and laborers. On the day he arrived as pastor, he found notice of a sheriff’s sale on the church door. He redeemed this debt of $7,000, in two years, and left the parish in good order. Fitzgerald relied on parishioners for support, but also conducted various fundraising events to generate additional income for Holy Name and other parishes in the diocese. On July 4, 1882, he attended a picnic at Ellenburgh Corners to aid the church.
Like all Roman Catholic priests at the time, Father Fitzgerald conducted services in Latin, which was often viewed as a common denominator among Catholic ethnic groups. Latin, however, did not solve the language issues of the diocese. English-speaking parishioners disliked French-Canadian priests who did not speak English well, and French-Canadian parishioners disliked English-speaking priests. In 1881, Father Fitzgerald sent a letter to Bishop Wadhams stating “The Black Brook congregation [then a mission of Ausable Forks] have sent forth the defiant news that they have nailed up their church, and that they will not have an Irish priest.”
In March 1883, Father Fitzgerald was assigned to St. Patrick’s Church, Rossie, in a farming region of St. Lawrence County. There he was responsible for completing the interior of the church. At Rossie, he was closer to Ogdensburg, and in 1885 was able to help out with diocesan Holy Week services. He served at Rossie at least until June 17, 1886 when he officiated at the marriage of Patrick Kelly and Nellie Sullivan.
Later that year, Father Fitzgerald was assigned as pastor to St. John the Baptist in Madrid, St. Lawrence County. His duties increased in April 1887 when he began filling in at St. Andrew’s Church, Norwood, after the previous priest left. On October 25, 1887, a local paper reported that Father Fitzgerald had moved to a house on Elm Street in the village of Madrid. His church also received a new coat of paint.
In January 1889, Fitzgerald sang at a dedication service in Pulaski, Oswego Co., NY, and a newspaper reported “We wish to especially mention the solos rendered by Fr. Fitzgerald at vespers. He has a voice worth a fortune to any one who would use it in operas. It was indeed a rare treat to listen to him. His is a voice of wonderful richness, of perfect cultivation and of great power, and his singing will not soon be forgotten by those who were so fortunate as to hear it.” He sang again at a service with a more personal connection on May 28, 1889, when he was a chanter at the funeral of Rev. Thomas J. Kelleher in Massena. Kelleher and Fitzgerald were classmates at Troy Provincial Seminary and were ordained the same day.
On Jun 19, 1889, Father Fitzgerald left on a trip to England to visit his parents, whom he had not seen for a number of years. He returned to Madrid on August 15.
By 1890, Father Fitzgerald’s connections to Norwood, a railroad and lumber center, were becoming more established. In May, he preached a temperance sermon at St. Andrew’s Church in Norwood and gave a Memorial Day address that was published in full by the Norwood News. In July, the newspaper reported that Fitzgerald was expected to take charge of the Norfolk and Norwood parish with residence in Norwood. The article went on to say “The Rev. gentleman has made many friends in Norwood and this announcement will be pleasing to everyone.” The parish soon purchased a house on the corner of Park and Bernard for a rectory.
On December 26, 1892, he participated in a school fundraiser in Basselin’s Opera House (now Crogan Library) in Crogan, Lewis County. He lectured on America and its discovery by Columbus and sang several songs including “Calvary” and “Ave Maria.” Father Fitzgerald was said to have “a phenomenal voice. ”
For three weeks in December 1893, Father Fitzgerald was gravely ill with double pneumonia at Norwood. He was still feeling the effects of the illness on January 14, 1894 when he was unable to make the trip to the Church of the Visitation in Norfolk to celebrate mass. With time, he recovered and by March was displaying yet another of his talents. For St. Patrick’s Day, he composed an Irish-American drama, to be performed with the assistance of Norwood’s orchestra.
Later that year, Fitzgerald showed signs of restlessness. The St. Lawrence Herald reported on April 27, 1894 that he resigned from Norwood and would be assigned to a parish “in the west.” Diocesan records at Ogdensburg show that in 1894, he was given permission to leave the diocese. These western plans were apparently put on hold because in May 1894, Fitzgerald was appointed to St. Joseph’s Church, in Olmstedville, Essex County, and its mission at Schroon Lake (Our Lady of Lourdes). While stationed at Olmstedville, he was part of the forty hours devotion on August 28, 1894 at St. Mary’s Church, Ticonderoga. Then on October 19, 1894, a newspaper printed a notice from the postmaster that Father Fitzgerald has “gone to parts unknown.”
The whereabouts of Father Fitzgerald remain unknown until 1896 when the Diocese of Ogdensburg gave him the daunting challenge to establish a parish at Old Forge in northern Herkimer County. The area was literally a wilderness with many scattered lumber camps and remote railroad stations. The Mohawk & Malone Railroad had reached Thendara, just south of Old Forge, only four years earlier. The region had previously been served by visiting priests and the by Rev. Hugh Byrne from Wells. A rectory and building lots for a church had been purchased on Aug. 29, 1896 so when he arrived in December 1896, Father Fitzgerald had a roof over his head, but little else. On Christmas Day 1896 when he was 46, he wrote the bishop “Said Mass in a log cabin. Eight people attended. Walked fourteen miles to Old Forge.” The Rome Daily Sentinel reported on April 12, 1897 that Father Fitzgerald would say mass in the open air at McKeever, Big Moose, Beaver River, and Old Forge. Later that year, on September 3, 1897 St. Bartholomew’s Parish was established with Fitzgerald as its first pastor. Dave Charbonneau, an Adirondack guide, and Alexander McIntyre were trustees. A church was then constructed and formally dedicated on August 27, 1899 by Bishop Henry Gabriels. Father Fitzgerald appears on the 1900 U.S. Census in the rectory at Old Forge. The household also included John and Anna Ohl. John Ohl was the long-time organist and sexton at St. Bartholomew’s and his wife was housekeeper.
Father Fitzgerald was a true missionary and from the start of his assignment began creating a network of mass stations and missions to reach his scattered flock. At Big Moose Station, he established a mass station at the school house in 1896 and then organized some lumberjacks to build a mission church, Holy Rosary. On December 20, 1897, he held services at the home of H. O. Riley at Piseco Lake. In 1899, he began construction of the mission church of St. Henry, Long Lake. On June 25, 1899, he performed the marriage of James McGovern and Mabel Aubery at St. William’s Church, Raquette Lake.
The following is a list of mission churches established or maintained by Father Fitzgerald:
– Big Moose (Holy Rosary, station 1896-1898, mission 1899-1912)
– Long Lake (St. Henry’s, station 1899, mission 1900-1901)
– Morehouseville (Immaculate Conception, mission 1899-1901)
– Piseco (St Mary’s, 1899-1901)
– Raquette Lake (St. William’s, 1898-1911)
– Wells (St. Ann’s, 1899-1901)
He also said mass regularly at the following stations, which did not have churches–many were just hamlets or lumber camps:
– Bear Pond (1902-1914)
– Beaver River (1897-1914)
– Blue Mountain Lake (1899)
– Brandreth (c.1910)
– Carter (c.1910)
– Griffin (1899-1901)
– Horseshoe (c.1908)
– Kippewa (1902-1914)
– Long Lake West/Sabattis (1902-1914)
– McKeever (1896-1915)
– Nehasane (1902-1914)
– Pemaqua (1902-1914)
– Sageville/Lake Pleasant (c.1899)
In 1908, Fitzgerald also said mass in the assembly hall of W. A. Preston’s Eagle Bay Hotel. Preston reportedly donated land for a permanent church in Eagle Bay, but the plan apparently fell through.
To maintain the growing network of missions, Father Fitzgerald needed to increase its revenue stream. Many of his parishioners were poor working folks, but he somehow always found ways to raise money. A passion play was performed for the benefit of “Father John Fitzgerald, Mission Priest of the Adirondacks,” on November 10, 1907 at the Orpheum Theater in Utica. There were four performances before a total of 3,785 people and the event raised a large sum. Father Fitzgerald also continued his recital and lecture work. On June 7, 1908, he sang a solemn mass on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the consecration of St. Gabriel’s Church in New Rochelle, Westchester County. On St. Patrick’s Day 1910, he presented a lecture titled “St. Patrick’s People, the Irish” at St. John’s Church, Camden, Oneida County.
Father Fitzgerald was a beloved fixture in the Old Forge community. Many years later, journalist David Beetle wrote that St. Bartholomew’s is “famous for Father John G. Fitzgerald, who for 30 years passed out dimes to children as persistently as Rockefeller. Catholics and Protestants both got them; it didn’t matter. And on Easter, after distributing colored eggs to his own parish, he used to have enough left over for the Protestant Sunday school.”
He also was quick to assist individuals and support the community. In October 1902, he was a witness for the widow of John Connell in her suit against the New York Central Railroad. Mr. Connell died after being struck by a train at Fulton Chain (Thendara) station. On October 20, 1913, Fitzgerald responded to the fatal shooting of Adirondack guide Frank Holmes on Little Moose Lake and administered last rites. In 1914, he was a charter member of the Old Forge public library board. In 1921, at Fitzgerald’s urging, real estate investor William J. Thistlethwaite donated land to Old Forge for Riverview Cemetery.
As the years passed, Father Fitzgerald’s duties were scaled back. In 1911, Bishop Gabriels invited the Franciscan order to assist the diocese. In July of that year, the Rev. Henry Thameling, O.F.M. Conv., became the first resident priest at Raquette Lake and also took responsibility for the mission at Big Moose. By 1922, Father Fitzgerald was 72 years old, and focused most of his activity in Old Forge at St. Bartholomew’s, which consisted of 58 families. On the evening of March 3, 1925, Father Fitzgerald attended a play at an Old Forge theater. On returning home to the rectory on Park Avenue around 10:30 pm, he complained to his housekeepers, Mr. and Mrs. Ohl, of a pain in his heart. He fell dead on the floor before Dr. Stuart Nelson could arrive. Father Fitzgerald was 74.
Father Fitz had no relatives in the United States, but he was truly mourned by the entire community. The funeral was held on Friday, March 5 in St. Bartholomew’s Church and was attended by the Knights of Columbus and members of the Masonic Lodge. The village public schools were closed all day and businesses closed during the service. In the absence of Bishop Joseph H. Conroy, who was in Rome, Msgr. George L. Murray of Lowville sang a high requiem mass. Afterward, Father Fitzgerald was laid to rest in Old Forge at Riverview Cemetery, which he had helped to create.
Photos, from above: sketch of Rev. John Fitzgerald (c.1885), History of the Diocese of Ogdensburg by Rev. J. T. Smith, p. 151.; and Rev. John Fitzgerald, from 1925 obituary, probably by Adirondack Arrow, courtesy of Town of Webb Historical Association.
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.