May 15 – Happy Birthday Father Joseph Girzone

GirzoneI started going to mass at Our Lady of Mt. Camel Church shortly after I began dating my wife Rosemary in 1973. Today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant had just been assigned as pastor there, replacing Father DiCerbo. The new guy, Father Joseph Girzone turned out to be one of the nicest, most able and friendliest priests I ever met. But he had difficulty when it came to delivering a sermon.

His prepared messages delivered from the pulpit usually seemed to be disjointed and his delivery often very forced. He just didn’t seem comfortable telling us what he was trying to tell us. Yet after the Mass, when he met you at the back door of the church, he’d shake your hand warmly, put his arm around your shoulder, ask about family, give you that Joe Girzone smile, not just with his mouth but also with those twinkling eyes of his and it never failed, when I left that church I’d say to myself, “I really like that guy!”

A little more than two years later, on the January morning Rosemary and I got married, a storm hit Amsterdam with close to three feet of snow. We were barely able to make it to church, but when we did, there was Father Girzone, all by himself, shoveling the sidewalk and steps. As I approached him he saw me and laughed and then yelled out “What a beautiful day for a wedding!” and he  actually meant it and he was right, it was a beautiful day.

He was caring, compassionate, friendly, very smart and though he had some difficulty making prepared speeches on the altar he was a genius at making a difference in the community. He understood government as well as he understood God and he was instrumental at getting the Montgomery County Office of the Aging initially funded and up and running. Then he showed us all how to love thy neighbor by doing the same thing in neighboring Fulton County. Girzone was a driving force behind the launch of Amsterdam’s Meals for the Elderly, a wonderful program that continues to serve a vital function for so many of our senior citizens four full decades later. He started a youth community center at Mt. Carmel which offered all kinds of cultural and recreational programs for teenagers. He brought God’s words into area jails and advocated for better treatment of prisoners. He worked closely with the Red Cross to provide assistance to victims of disasters. He truly tried to live his life the way he thought Jesus would want him to. In fact, he often found himself at odds with church doctrine, which he thought at times focused too much on harshness, telling people what they couldn’t do and driving them away from God. He liked to point out that Jesus showed amazing compassion for sinners and in so doing drew them to the word of God. It was this internal struggle between what the church wanted him to do and what he felt Jesus himself would do that would eventually transform Girzone’s life.

The transformation began when Bishop Hubbard reassigned Girzone to another parish in Ravena in 1979. Two years later, a heart ailment forced him to retire from the priesthood. That’s when he decided to put an idea he had for a book into action. He self-published “Joshua” in 1983…

The rest of Father Girzone’s birthday post will be published in the second editionof A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam NY Birthdays, which will be available for sale right after Thanksgiving. To make sure you get your hands on one of the first copies, join my mailing list here.

The first edition of A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam NY Birthdays, which features my birthday posts for 320 current or former Amsterdam residents, is currently being sold at Liberty Fresh Market, on Route 30 in Amsterdam. You can also purchase it online here.

May 15 was also the birthday of this former Amsterdam High School star athlete who made the supreme sacrifice in WWII.

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