I started going to mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel 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 struggled a bit when it came to presenting a formal 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 when he was doing all the talking. 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 and sold copies from the trunk of his car. Everyone who read it loved it including professional reviewers and Doubleday came calling and signed the new author to a deal that would earn him million dollar advances on subsequent books.
Girzone used that money to establish Joshua Mountain Ministries in Altamont, NY. The Joshua he wrote about was not stern, self righteous or unapproachable. Girzone created him as a joyful and happy figure that loved, welcomed and showed compassion for all people. That would be the message permeated by his new mountaintop ministry via retreats, seminars, videos etc. Since the ministry was subsidized by his royalty revenues sales monies derived from its products and services did not come close to covering what they cost to deliver. Then, as the Internet came along and changed the economics of publishing, Doubleday dropped Girzone, and he was forced to donate the 100-acre mountaintop retreat to a foundation and scale the scope of his ministry way back. But by then, over 3 million copies of his books had been sold and the story of Joshua had been made into a movie.
When I wrote my first book, a novella entitled Not Just Another Christmas Story, I called Father Girzone to see if he could give me some advice for getting it published. It had been over twenty years since we had last talked but as soon as I mentioned my snowy January wedding, he remembered me, my wife and family instantly. He was gracious enough to offer to read my manuscript and just a few days later called me back and told me how much he loved my story and how much it had made him laugh. After giving me a few editorial recommendations, all of which I followed, he urged me to get the story in front of as many people as possible and just let them enjoy. That’s exactly what I did.
Father Girzone died on November 29, 2015 at St. Peter’s Hospice in Albany, NY. He was 85 years old. Like I indicated at the beginning of this post, he struggled just a bit when he tried to explain to people from a pulpit what he thought God expected from them. But give him a piece of paper and a pen and nobody ever did it better.
May 15 was also the birthday of this former Amsterdam High School star athlete who made the supreme sacrifice in WWII.