Joseph Fiorenza, archbishop emeritus of Galveston-Houston, remembered as force for social change

Houston Chronicle [Houston TX]

September 19, 2022

By Dug Begley and Lindsay Peyton

Joseph Fiorenza, the son of immigrants who steered a rapidly changing southeast Texas through its evolution as a beacon for newcomers as its first home-grown Catholic archbishop, died Monday, church officials said.

Fiorenza, bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston from 1985 until 2006, was 91. In a statement, Fiorenza’s successor, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, praised him as a “champion of civil rights and a tireless worker in overcoming the presence of racism in our community.” 

Well past turning 90, Fiorenza remained a force for social change, as he had been for decades.

“We worked to de-segregate Houston’s schools and businesses, created alliances to provide solutions for Houston’s homeless, committed to increase Harris County’s responsiveness to the legal needs of the indigent and even labored to create a vision for age-friendly care which supports seniors who need geriatric services,” said the Rev. William A. Lawson, a local civil rights icon who stood with Fiorenza on many causes. “Joe spoke in a quiet voice, but he was a strong presence wherever he went.”

Houston-area leaders praised Fiorenza’s service, even when that service at times demanded they do more to protect society’s most vulnerable, whether they were new immigrants, the homeless or the working poor struggling to survive.

“His strength of faith was evident in his work on behalf of many of the poorest and most defenseless among us,” said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle. “He was a true force locally for justice and civil rights. Personally, I will miss exchanging letters with him on the role of servants on Earth.”

Fiorenza was born in Beaumont in 1931, the son of Italian immigrants, Anthony and Grace Fiorenza.

“By the time I was a senior in high school, I was pretty well sure that I wanted to study to be a priest,” Fiorenza said in a 2021 interview. “It’s just a feeling that grows within you, a desire to spend your time helping other people.”

He was ordained for the then-Diocese of Galveston-Houston in May 1954, and first was appointed to Queen of Peace Church in Houston. Stints as chaplain of  St. Joseph Hospital, Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral, St. Augustine Church, Benedict of the Abbot Church and Assumption Church followed.

Along the way, the young priest found a fellowship with socially-conscious crusaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1965 organized the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

“I became very interested in social justice, in helping people overcome prejudice,” Fiorenza said. “I wanted to be part of the movement to address the systemic racism that’s still present in our society today.”

Fiorenza recalled being frightened by the police who were watching the protesters in Selma.

“But we felt safe,” he said. “Martin Luther King was a visionary, a prophet. He felt called by God to do what he was doing.”

Fiorenza in 1979 was appointed bishop of San Angelo — a sprawling diocese from Amarillo to the Mexico border — and headed west for his first placement outside East Texas. 

He returned in 1984, when St. Pope John Paul II called him back to the Houston diocese. 

“He was also known as a great promoter of genuine renewal in the Church, and in making the teachings of the Second Vatican Council known,”  DiNardo said.

In 2004, Fiorenza became its first archbishop when the Houston-Galveston area was elevated to an archdiocese. He retired a month after his 75th birthday, but not before serving as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“I respect his title, but to me, he was always ‘Joe,'” Lawson said Monday, citing Luke 10:27. “He shared my values to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and that we should love our neighbor as ourselves'”

Lawson said “even his extraordinary involvement in the construction and planning of the Co-Cathedral are a testament to his skills of collaboration.”

Fiorenza, however, also presided during some the American church’s darkest times. As bishop, Fiorenza would have been witness to the decades of complaints aimed at priests accused of sexual abuse of children.

Court records show Fiorenza was aware of molestation allegations involving several priests, including Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, stretching back to his time as a diocesan leader. He assured the parents of one child in 2001 that La Rosa-Lopez would be removed from service to seek help. By that point, he had been accused of molesting an altar boy nearly a decade earlier. The priest later returned to service at another parish.  Prosecutors in Montgomery County listed the bishop as a potential witness had the priest gone to trial on several counts of indecency with a child. He accepted a plea deal instead.

A study done during Fiorenza’s tenure in the early 2000s, following a Boston Globe investigation that exposed years of sexual abuse cover-ups, found nearly two dozen priests with credible child sex abuse allegations. That number nearly doubled by the time of a second nationwide reckoning in 2019, under DiNardo’s leadership, as more accusers came forward. 

The concerns, however, did not dent Fiorenza’s reputation for being what Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called a “quiet voice of reason” and others praised for even after his 2006 retirement remaining an unwavering advocate for the needy.

“From his outspoken support of misdemeanor bail reform to his fierce advocacy for civil rights, he led with a moral compass that always pointed toward justice,” Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis said.

That reputation led to a number of honoraria around Houston. In 1999, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza Park was dedicated at Westpark Tollway and Eldridge Parkway. Queen of Peace named its community center after the archbishop, and the archdiocese operates the Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza Priest Retirement Residence Fund. 

In his Houston role, Fiorenza tended to the Catholic faithful, but also residents of other denominations or no spirituality at all. Fiorenza emphasized social justice and civil rights, including as part of the so-called “Three Amigos” or “Three Wise Men,” a triumvirate that included Rabbi Samuel Karff and Lawson. Karff died two years ago. All three are honored in the courtyard of the Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston offices in Midtown.

“Their partnership was a friendship that reflected the best in humanity and the deeds that we are all called to do,” said Rabbi David A. Lyon, Karff’s successor at Congregation Beth Israel, Houston. “In his mighty hands, Archbishop expressed kindness where it was lacking and hope where there was despair.”

As a church leader, Fiorenza was eager to enlist the ordained in public service, even with a little nudging.

“We used to joke, ‘Don’t let him grab your elbow,'” Auxiliary Bishop George Sheltz said last year, prior to his death in December. “Because then he’ll ask you to do something, and you can’t say no.”

In sometimes public settings, Fiorenza urged the Houston community to care for incoming immigrants, noting the need for kindness in an often-harsh world. He and others also took public stances for increase attention on jail conditions, low income residents and poor children.

In concert with various faith leaders, Fiorenza sought and won Duane Buck’s removal from death row, citing the racial overtones of his trial, urged more cooperation to mitigate the COVID pandemic, and more dialogue between Christians, Muslims and Jews. In early 2021, Fiorenza, Lawson and Lyon — the former two at or near 90 — urged greater care for the elderly.

Fiorenza advocated, Turner noted, with a calm demeanor for someone who had seen so much. Rarely did he raise his voice, Turner said, because he did not need volume to make his point.

“God sent us one of his best ambassadors,” Turner said. “When the archbishop checked off all the boxes, he did what he was sent here to do, then God reserved the right to call him back home and that is exactly what happened today.

“I just hope God will send us another,” Turner said after a pause.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Reporter Nicole Hensley contributed to this article.