It’s not clear if he ever threw a Hail Mary pass when he played football at Shelton High School in 1929, but he later made goals few achieve in a lifetime.
Shelton’s scrappy left end went on to become a priest, a civil rights-era advocate—and the world’s oldest Catholic bishop. Archbishop Peter Leo Gerety, who led the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., died Tuesday at 104, the archdiocese confirmed.
“The Diocese of Bridgeport mourns the loss and celebrates the life of Archbishop Peter Gerety, a native of Shelton who grew up in St. Joseph Parish and is remembered fondly for his kindness and generosity as a person,” said Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of the Diocese of Bridgeport.
He added: “I was personally grateful that he traveled back to the diocese at the age of 101 to attend my installation as bishop. Our Church and our faith today truly stands on the shoulders of men like Archbishop Gerety.”
One might think the life of an archbishop would be filled with sermons, religious studies, tending to his flock, deep contemplation and visits to the the Vatican. To be sure, those experiences were familiar to Gerety.
But in the 1930s, the future archbishop found himself on a rather different path. In an extensive interview in August 2009, Gerety revealed that one of his first jobs out of high school was manning a roadblock for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“There was an infestation of Japanese beetles,” he said, “and I was one of the guys who stopped cars at roadblocks to see if they had any fruits and vegetables, that kind of thing, to keep the beetles from spreading. They didn’t like to see us.”
Led black church
Gerety was the eldest of nine children, all boys. He was educated in Shelton’s public school system, attending the Commodore Hull Elementary School on Oak Avenue, which still stands and has since been converted into an apartment building. “When I went to Shelton High, I was captain of the football team in my senior year,” he said. “Left end.”
His time at Shelton High has left its football team with a tradition, according to Sister Nancy Strillacci of the St. Joseph Parish in Shelton, who had been in contact with Gerety in recent years.
“In fact, to this day, before a game, the team has a tradition of attending Mass at St. Joseph because of Archbishop Gerety,” she said. “Of course it’s optional—some members of the team aren’t Catholic. But the parish provide sandwiches for the team afterwards, and that custom began with Father Gerety.” Strillacci belongs to the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
After the job manning roadblocks for the USDA and a later job with the New Jersey Department of Transportation, he enrolled in the St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Connecticut. After that, he soon found himself as being an advocate for the poor in New Haven.
His first assignment was in St. John the Evangelist Parish on Davenport Avenue, across the street from Yale-New Haven Hospital.
“I was there for three years,” he said in the 2009 interview. “Then I was appointed to St. Martin de Porres Church on Dixwell Avenue in 1942. It was an all-black congregation. St. Martin de Porres is a black saint. I founded the place in 1942.”
It was during that time that he worked with the Legislature to get civil-rights laws passed and pressed for improvements in interracial relations, and the improvement of the situation for blacks.
He was sent by the church to Maine in the 1960s, and he became Portland’s eighth bishop in 1969. When he was appointed as the third archbishop of Newark, he welcomed the move back to the inner-city.
“The fact of the matter is it was more of a change moving from Dixwell Avenue up to Maine than it was moving from Maine to Newark,” Gerety said. “The inner-city setting was what I was familiar with. Newark is very much an urbanized area—very much what I was used to in New Haven.”
Caggiano made note of the fact that when Gerety returned to St. Joseph Parish in Shelton to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2013, he was the only person who was there at both the Church’s opening — as a child — and its 100th anniversary. He spent his final years at St. Joseph’s Home for the Elderly, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, in Totowa.
“He will be remembered as a man of wit and humor with a great love for the poor and a sense of the importance of community in the life of the Church and in our neighborhoods,” Caggiano said.