Roseville priest, pastor of both Saint Rose and Corpus Christi, set to retire


Mike Munzenrider • The Rev. Robert Fitzpatrick in front of the icon of St. Rose of Lima. Fitzpatrick retires July 1 after 13 years as pastor at Saint Rose of Lima Catholic Church and six years as pastor of Corpus Christi Catholic Church. The priest of 45 years serves a dual role as pastor of both Roseville churches.

courtesy of Robert Fitzpatrick • Mother Teresa, front, with the Rev. Robert Fitzpatrick, center right, in 1976.

Mike Munzenrider • Fitzpatrick with a news clipping from his time as pastor at St. John’s Church of Little Canada. The clipping is about a gift, a Cabbage Patch Priest named Father Seamus Nott — be aware of the Catholic pun.

Marc Paveglio

As the Rev. Robert Fitzpatrick holds court in his Saint Rose of Lima Catholic Church office looking back on his near half century as a priest, one story in particular moves him most.

It was the early 1980s he says, long before he was pastor of both Saint Rose of Lima and Corpus Christi Catholic churches in Roseville, and likely long before he’d imagined he’d be celebrating his last Mass on July 1 before retiring at 70 years old.

The Nicaraguan Revolution had created a refugee crisis in Honduras, and he and other church leaders from around the Twin Cities and Midwest had led some 25,000 young people in collecting donations — clothing, seeds, supplies — for the displaced people to be administered by Catholic Relief Services.

The supplies would travel by barge down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, then on to Central America, and on a Sunday morning in Lent, he and hundreds of others, perhaps thousands, including plenty of youth who’d already been moved by the experience, headed to docks in South St. Paul to see the donations off.

As news helicopters buzzed overhead, Archbishop John Roach, then head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said a prayer. 

Roach punctuated it with “Go forth,” and at that very moment the barge sounded it’s horn and lurched into its journey down the Mississippi. 

Fitzpatrick says the kids who’d gathered went nuts; some 35 years later, recounting the story, that single moment appears to make him fight back tears.

“Those are the kinds of things that say it was all worth it,” he says. “The 45 years were worth it.”

 

Two cultures, plenty of work

Fitzpatrick, known to many as “Father Fitz” and whose laugh interjects itself frequently into conversation, has been pastor of Saint Rose for 13 years. 

In the midst of the ongoing revelations of clergy sex abuse, which he says have “taken a toll on every parish,” and coupled with a shortage of priests, Fitzpatrick became pastor at Corpus Christi six years ago, taking on double-church duties.

Fitzpatrick himself was put on a seven and a half month “hiatus,” he says, because of a false accusation in 2015 and was later cleared by the archdiocese.

Of his dual-pastor role, he says, “It created some fear,” with church-goers worrying that the two parishes would be merged. “The churches have different DNA.”

Both were founded in 1939 but with distinct purposes. 

Corpus Christi, located at County Road B and Fairview Avenue, was to serve the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, he says, and was the host parish of a 1941 national church gathering at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. 

Saint Rose, founded in the spreading city blocks east of Snelling Avenue and north of Larpenteur Avenue in the 2000 block of Hamline Avenue, says Fitzpatrick, was established to build a school.

Fitzpatrick says Saint Rose peaked in size with 2,200 households and is about half the size now. Corpus Christi, in a more sparsely populated part of the city, never grew nearly as large as Saint Rose is now. 

Nowadays, the two churches retain their identities of nearly 80 years, and for the past six years Fitzpatrick says he’s juggled leading the two, working double time, nearly literally.

“I’m always impressed by his dedication to ministry, his untiring work ethic,” says John Adams, Saint Rose’s business administrator. “You know he puts in, some weeks, probably 70 to 80 hours.”

Adams, who’s held the position for four years but has been a Saint Rose parishioner since 1981, says Fitzpatrick has helped him in his job — “he has a lot of experience running a parish.”

He also remembers when in 2005, with his son unconscious at Hennepin County Medical Center and shortly after Fitzpatrick was assigned to Saint Rose, that the priest visited the family in the hospital — his son came out of it fine.

“That was special that he came down and prayed over our son,” says Adams.

 

Mother Teresa in the back seat

Born in 1947 in New York City, Fitzpatrick says he grew up in Dumont, New Jersey. Depending on who you ask, it was either in fourth grade or second grade that Fitzpatrick knew he’d become a priest.

Fitzpatrick says his brother insists that the news was delivered to a Sister Vincent in grade two; Fitzpatrick says it was two years later.

The Fitzpatricks moved to Minnesota and then to South Bend, Indiana, for two years, before, with an eye on attending seminary, Fitzpatrick made his way back to the Twin Cities.

Ordained in 1973, he was assigned to St. Olaf Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis. “In those days nobody lived downtown,” Fitzpatrick says, pointing out he ministered to adults, business people and folks in town for a convention or sporting events.

He did four years at St. Olaf, during which time he says he surreptitiously helped Mother Teresa pray in the church chapel before shuttling her in his Ford Maverick to her doctor’s home.

“Dear God, don’t let me get in an accident, there’s a saint in my back seat,” he remembers pleading. 

Once at the doctor’s home — Mother Teresa would only see this one Twin Cities-based M.D. — the two had coffee and doughnuts and she insisted he tell her about himself. Before Fitzpatrick could leave — he had his regular duties to return to — she insisted he bless her.

From downtown Minneapolis Fitzpatrick landed at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in St. Paul, which was next door to Cretin High School. With the move, Fitzpatrick says, “I found a whole lot of church I’d never met before: 18 and under.”

 

Dracula, Satan, Pontius Pilate

At Holy Spirit he was youth pastor, developing a huge ministry with 50-100 kids in attendance each Sunday night. 

The time was filled with camping and canoeing, trips to Valley Fair and an annual haunted house, which at its peak raised $660 on 50-cent admissions over three days. At least once, Fitzpatrick played Dracula, rising from a coffin.

From Holy Spirit, in 1984 Fitzpatrick landed at St. John’s Church of Little Canada, its seventh pastor in as many years. 

At the time he says, neighboring Vadnais Heights was sprouting homes like mushrooms and the church added some 400 households in five years. He was there long enough, 21 years, to see the $7 million addition of a new school building.

By 2005 he moved to Saint Rose, and early on reveled in performing in January shows such as one on the life of Jesus Christ, where he says “I got to be the bad guy,” twice over: he played Satan, tempting Jesus, as well as Pontius Pilate.

A one-time drama club president in South Bend, he says he loves music and singing. “My father lived to sing and I inherited those genes.”

Sue Valois, coordinator of liturgy and music at Corpus Christi, says Fitzpatrick’s verve is catchy.

“When you think of Father Fitz, you think of energy, a hearty laugh and a smile,” Valois says. “[He] has a great love of the liturgy and for the scriptures that is contagious.”

Valois also says Fitzpatrick has worked to keep her church as its own place. “When he arrived 6 years ago, he embraced our Corpus Christi community and has worked hard to protect and nurture our growth.”

 

Go forth

Fitzpatrick’s replacement is the Rev. Marc Paveglio. He tells the younger priest to “take your time and get to know the cultures” of the two churches.

“Learn it from them instead of hearing it from the other side,” he adds.

With a schedule soon-to-be cleared of his dual-parish obligations, Fitzpatrick says his first priority is to take a break. 

Priority No. 2 is to spend more time with his family, particularly his 97-year-old mother, who lives in Little Canada — Fitzpatrick says he just bought Mom a new computer for better online bill paying.

There’ll also be more time to get the yard up to snuff at his Roseville home, and then there’s already a pilgrimage to England and Scotland lined up for September.

Fitzpatrick says pilgrimages have long played a role in his off time, having already racked up four trips to the Holy Land, three to Italy and single visits to Ireland and Poland. 

He’s also partaken in another type of devotional travel, seeking out thrills on roller coasters. One particular trip, what Fitzpatrick calls the “Grand Roller Coaster Tour,” hit five theme parks in 10 days. 

From his office and now touring Saint Rose of Lima Church, Fitzpatrick explains Peter Lupori’s icon of the saint, and gives an up close look at the saint’s relic, a tiny speck of bone.

His appreciation of the place of worship is evident as he explains how the circular opening above the church’s altar is the same diameter as that at the Pantheon in Rome.

Fitzpatrick tells how at the former Roman temple, now church, which has an open dome, on the feast of Pentecost rose petals are dropped through the opening and into the church, signifying tongues of fire.

Shifting perhaps to thoughts of retirement, Fitzpatrick says with a bit of wonder that a trip to Rome for Pentecost, to see those falling petals, is one for the bucket list.

 

– Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813

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