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Rev. Msgr. John Louis Fitzgerald

Deceased: 2023-12-16


ICTE Spring: 2001

Monsignor John Louis FitzGerald, a Baltimore native and former military chaplain who in 2003 established Apostleship of the Sea, a worldwide ministry for seafarers, for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, died Dec. 16, 2023. He was 82.

He was born in Baltimore Dec. 9, 1941, attended St. Mary’s Seminary in Roland Park, and was ordained to the priesthood on May 20, 1967 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland.

As a child, he attended St. Mark Parish in Catonsville. After ordination, he was assigned first to St. Matthew Parish in Northwood, then St. Peter the Apostle in Baltimore.

Monsignor John FitzGerald had a long career ministering to workers at the Port of Baltimore. In 1971, Monsignor FitzGerald was released by Cardinal Lawrence Shehan to enlist in the Navy for chaplain duties. His postings in California included the National Parachute Test Range (later named Naval Air Facility El Centro), the 1st Marine Division and Naval Regional Medical Center at Camp Pendleton, and the supercarrier USS Constellation. His later postings included chaplain at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Naval Air Station Norfolk, Naval Chaplains School in Newport, R.I., 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Kaneohe, Hawaii, and Submarine Forces Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. He finished his military career with postings at the Chief of Naval Operations and the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington.

In 1998, he was named chairman of the Priest Council for the Archdiocese of the Military Services.

He earned doctorates, both from United States International University in San Diego, in behavioral science in 1978 and clinical psychology in 1981.

Leaving Navy service in 2000, he set off for a graduate study sabbatical covering Paris, Munich, Vienna, Florence and Rome, during which he was able to learn conversational Italian, French, Spanish and German.

Returning to Baltimore, he established the Apostleship of the Sea, an organization with roots stretching back to 1920 in Scotland, and set up the Stella Maris International Seafarer Center in the Dundalk Village Shopping Center. It has since moved to the former rectory of St. Rita Parish.

Center volunteers, many of whom are Knights of Columbus, visit merchant ships at the Port of Baltimore Monday through Saturday, dropping off rosaries, scapulars and prayer cards, along with secular magazines and books.

“Seafarers read a lot,” Monsignor FitzGerald told Catholic News Service in 2017. “When you’re not on shift, there’s not a lot to do. Reading helps your mind.”

Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, left, and Monsginor John L. FitzGerald at the dedication of the expanded Seafarers Center in 2011. Most international seafarers come from the developing world; the center estimated that about 65 percent are Catholic.

Volunteers also help seafarers obtain basic needs such as toiletries. Ship visitors are authorized to escort them to the Seafarer Center and destinations such as Arundel Mills, where they can purchase clothing and electronics.

In 2007, Monsignor FitzGerald told the Baltimore Business Journal about some of the grim conditions he and AOS volunteers had witnessed: “Once we saw seafarers fishing in Baltimore Harbor because they didn’t have any food but potatoes. Another crew said they came from South America but had to sleep on deck because the air-conditioning wasn’t working.”

When Monsignor. FitzGerald retired from ministry in October 2019, Archbishop William Lori named Andy Middleton, a former Baltimore police officer and longtime volunteer with Apostleship of the Sea, its director.

“When I first started here, a lot of seafarers came to use the computers and phones,” Middleton told the Catholic Review in 2019. ““Now the big draw is WiFi, and we … have a lounge where they can sit and FaceTime with their family and friends back home.”Merchant mariners, who work on contracts, don’t get vacation or bereavement leave, and satellite service on ships is too expensive for personal calls. “If there’s a birth or a death in the family, there’s no going home for a week,” Middleton said. “Our job is to create that link, to help them communicate back home.”

“(St.) John Paul II called merchant seafarers ‘the invisible strangers in our midst,’ and I thought that was a beautiful way of putting it,” Monsignor FitzGerald told Catholic News Service. “They come and go into our largest metropolitan areas, which are usually major ports. No one sees them when they come, no one sees them when they’re here, no one sees them when they go.”

Monsignor FitzGerald is survived by his niece, Teresa Lagonigro of Westminster.

Services, all at St. Mark in Catonsville, include visitation Dec. 27, 2-6 p.m., and Dec. 28, 10-11 a.m. and a Mass of Christian Burial Dec. 28, 11 a.m., with Archbishop William E. Lori as celebrant and Monsignor Carl Cummings as homilist. Interment will be in New Cathedral Cemetery following the Mass.