SALT LAKE CITY — Priest. Pastor. Principal. Executive director. Vicar general. The positions that Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald has held with the Diocese of Salt Lake City run the gamut; in the 49 years since he was ordained he has held every major administrative position in the local Church.
"Msgr. Fitzgerald is the most gifted administrator I’ve ever known," said the Most Rev. George H. Niederauer, who was Bishop of Salt Lake City from 1995 t0 2006 and now is Archbishop of San Francisco.
That gift has led, over the years, to the expansion of the faith in Utah. Many churches and missions have been built while Msgr. Fitzgerald served two terms as vicar general and two as diocesan administrator during interregnum.
"He had a vision and he knew how to put together the resources to make the vision happen," Archbishop Niederauer said, adding that the Skaggs Center in Draper, with its three schools and parish, is a prime example of Msgr. Fitzgerald’s ability.
The Skaggs Center was a wonderful gift from the Skaggs family, the archbishop said, but "I think Mr. Skaggs himself would be the first to acknowledge that the one who shepherded it through was very much Msgr. Fitzgerald. And it’s not just bricks and mortar, it’s bricks and mortar for a purpose, and that is the deepening of the faith for the people."
Msgr. Fitzgerald’s passion for the Church is the reason he excels at raising funds, the archbishop said. "He has a real, apostolic spirit."
That spirit showed itself early. Msgr. Fitzgerald felt called to the priesthood while he was a student at Judge Memorial Catholic High School. He gave serious consideration to joining a religious order, but when the Most Rev. Duane G. Hunt, then Bishop of Salt Lake City, told him he belonged in the diocese, "that was it," Msgr. Fitzgerald said.
He was ordained a priest for the diocese in 1962, then attended the Catholic University of America and the University of Utah, where he earned a master’s degree in social work. His first assignment was as administrator of Notre Dame Regional High School in Price; that was followed by a two-year stint as the diocesan director of religious education and assistant superintendent of Catholic Schools. Later, he served as principal of his alma mater, Judge Memorial.
Even now, his background in education shows in his support for the arts and humanities at the schools, said Holy Cross Sister Genevra Rolf, assistant superintendent for Utah Catholic Schools. It was Msgr. Fitzgerald who conceived the idea for the diocese’s Special Needs scholarship program, and it was because of his relationship with the Skaggs family that they have continued to donate to Catholic school projects, including the 2010 expansion of Saint Francis Xavier Regional School in Kearns, said Holy Cross Sister Catherine Kamphaus, superintendent of schools.
"He sees the essence of stuff," Sr. Genevra said. "It’s always about what’s good for the schools. It’s never about the person."
The sisters also agree that Msgr. Fitzgerald is a good friend, not only to them personally, but to all the vowed religious; he supports their activities and remembers their deceased members at Masses.
"He’s a very good colleague and a trusted friend," Sr. Genevra said. "He’s not just our boss, he’s more of a mentor."
Likewise, Monsignor Robert Servatius, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Sandy, said he is grateful for Msgr. Fitzgerald’s friendship. The two have known each other nearly all their lives; they attended Judge Memorial together back when it was a grammar school as well as a high school.
Msgr. Fitzgerald "is a real churchman," Msgr. Servatius said. "Where there’s a need and where he’s called to help, he has always responded."
For example, at the annual Diocesan Council of Catholic Women convention in April, Msgr. Fitzgerald was asked to represent the bishop, who was out of town, and "he was very delighted to do it," Msgr. Servatius said. At the dinner the two of them roasted each other, much to the audience’s appreciation, he said. "I think a lot of people saw a side of him that they didn’t know – his sense of humor. He’s got a laugh that is very infectious. In fact, some of the ladies said his laugh got them laughing."
On the other hand, Msgr. Fitzgerald is a very private person, Msgr. Servatius said. "He doesn’t like the limelight. I think his thinking is, ‘What I do, I do for the Lord and for the Church, not for the headlines.’"
Now, as Msgr. Fitzgerald approaches his June 4 retirement date, he takes little credit for the accomplishments others attribute to him.
"Everything I’ve been able to accomplish has been because I’ve been so fortunate to have people to work with who have been able to make those things happen," he said.
He has worked for four bishops, including most recently the Most Rev. John C. Wester, who was installed as Bishop of Salt Lake City in 2007. At that time, Msgr. Fitzgerald "would have been within his right to retire, but he stayed on as vicar general as a service to the Church and to me, for which I will be forever grateful," Bishop Wester said. "He has become, over the years, a very dear friend and close collaborator, somebody I can trust and rely upon and work things through with. There’s no one really quite like him. All my brother bishops whom I talk with, they’re jealous. They say, ‘You’re lucky, you’ve got Msgr. Fitzgerald,’ and I say, ‘That’s right, and you can’t have him.’"
Msgr. Fitzgerald’s influence extends beyond the Catholic Church; he has worked with – and is held in high regard by – groups as diverse as the Utah National Guard, which is honoring him at a banquet in June, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Personally and on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I congratulate Msgr. Fitzgerald on the many years of dedicated, Christ-like service he has provided to this community," said LDS President Thomas S. Monson. "Our churches share a rich history of working together and I have come to know and respect Msgr. Fitzgerald for his tireless efforts to serve. I wish him the very best in his retirement and look forward to building upon the relationships he helped to forge."
In retirement, Msgr. Fitzgerald plans to continue to serve – he sits on a number of boards both locally and nationally with which he intends to remain active. He also hopes to write, for the diocese’s archives, biographies of priests and religious women he has known.
Bishop Wester said he’s grateful for Msgr. Fitzgerald’s plans. "He has the institutional memory of the diocese – the people, the major events," he said.
In describing Msgr. Fitzgerald, the bishop said the Scriptural quote that comes to mind is "Well done, good and faithful servant."
"But I hope he gets some rest and does the things he would like to do that he hasn’t had time to do before," Bishop Wester said. "He would do well one day to go and get a dictionary from the library and look up the word ‘retirement’ just so he has a passing idea of what it means, because I have the feeling he’s going to work very, very hard. He loves the Church and he loves to serve the Church. I think that for him it’s a way to be fulfilled."
A Mass honoring Msgr. Fitzgerald will be at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 22, at Saint Ann Catholic Church, 450 East 2100 South, Salt Lake City. All are invited.