When Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza came to the office on the morning of January 25, he was greeted with a surprising series of videotaped birthday messages from clergymen around the world.
His longtime friend, Rev. Bill Lawson, pastor emeritus of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, was among the voices to greet him in his 90s.
“You had a great life, but obviously God isn’t finished with you,” said Lawson, 92. “Live on, keep helping, keep laughing, keep loving.”
While Fiorenza watched, a small group waited downstairs to share more congratulations. The Archbishop was then kidnapped for a drive-through parade to the priest’s senior residence in Houston’s St. Dominic Village, where he sat in the front and center, surrounded by balloons and banners that read “Birthday Blessings.” Motorists waved, honked and blew noise makers.
“They had a wonderful parade of cars,” said Fiorenza. “That was a very nice way to be 90 years old.”
The celebration was kept small to ensure safety during the coronavirus pandemic. Larger celebrations are planned for later in the year.
Fiorenza was born in Beaumont in 1931 to the Italian immigrants Anthony and Grace Fiorenza.
He attended St. Anthony High School, where he was both president of the high school and captain of the football team.
“When I was in high school, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a priest,” recalls Fiorenza. “It’s just a feeling that grows within you, the desire to spend your time helping other people.”
He enrolled at St. Mary’s Seminary in La Porte and was ordained in May 1954 for what was then the Diocese of Galveston-Houston.
Fiorenza’s first position was as an assistant pastor at the Queen of Peace Church in Houston. In 1957 he accepted a position as professor of medical ethics at Sacred Heart Dominican College, a former women’s college in Houston, and was chaplain at St. Joseph Hospital.
Then there were stations in the Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral, St. Augustine Church, the Benedict of the Abbot Church and the Church of the Assumption.
In the late 1970s, he left Houston for West Texas after being named fourth bishop of San Angelo by Pope John Paul II.
“I had never really visited West Texas,” said Fiorenza.
Its area of responsibility was 45,000 square miles and stretched from Amarillo to the Mexican border. He traveled across the diocese to meet his parishioners.
“It was a great experience … I enjoyed it very much,” he said. But Houston kept calling.
In 1985 Fiorenza was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston; In 2004 he was named the first archbishop of the diocese, now home to 1.7 million Catholics and serving the largest Catholic population in Texas. It is also the fifth largest in the US
“I’ve been here ever since,” said Fiorenza.
He retired at the age of 75 but remained committed to the Archdiocese. He still reports to work regularly and helps out at the trade fair.
“I try to stay as active as possible because I’m 90,” he said.
Fiorenza remains passionate about the causes that have been close to his heart for decades.
In 1965, Fiorenza joined other young priests and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the March from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
“I was very interested in social justice, in helping people overcome prejudice,” said Fiorenza. “I wanted to be part of the movement to fight the systemic racism that is still present in our society today.”
Fiorenza recalls that the police watching the demonstrators in Selma were terrified.
“But we felt safe,” he says. “Martin Luther King was a visionary, a prophet. He felt called by God to do what he did. “
Lawson stated that Fiorenza has a thorough understanding of the need for social justice.
“When you think of the people marching across Selma Bridge, you wouldn’t expect a young white priest,” Lawson said. “But he was there.
“He was from the south, from East Texas, from Beaumont,” added Lawson. “So early, so young, he reached out for the underdog.”
Fiorenza continued to be committed to human rights throughout his career.
“Houston is a diverse community,” he said. “In this diversity, we want to be sure that there is also equality.”
Fiorenza continues to advocate for immigrant and homeless Houston rights; he helped set up the coalition for the homeless and an AIDS service for the diocese.
In Houston, Fiorenza is known as a member of the “Three Amigos”.
For years he worked alongside Lawson and the late Samuel Karff, the retired rabbi of the Beth Israel Congregation, for good causes.
Last October, Rabbi David Lyon was named the newest amigo and took on the role of his mentor, Karff.
“In interfaith work, the archbishop was present in places where clergymen gathered to speak and act on hunger, homelessness, immigration and other important issues of social justice,” said Lyon, who met Fiorenza in the early 1990s.
Often different faithful spoke and exchanged conversations before and after the programs.
“Archbishop Fiorenza is what we call a ‘human’ in Yiddish. He is a total person who behaves with humble authority and wise insight from his beliefs and life experience, ”said Lyon.
“As a man of faith he is someone you can absolutely rely on,” said Lyon. “The yardstick of our community is how we treat the weakest. He modeled it for years. Joe hugs everyone and we hug him too. “
The Three Amigos continue to work together almost weekly via email about their work together, the rabbi added.
“As long as Archbishop Fiorenza has his voice, we want to hear his wise words,” said Lyon.
Martin Cominsky, President and CEO of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, said Fiorenza is committed to working with other faith leaders to bring about positive change in the city.
“I admire him so much,” said Cominsky. “He impresses me with his humility, but also with his strength, how he articulates his thoughts within the Catholic Church and others outside the Church, how he can understand human and civil rights.”
Interfaith Ministries honored the Three Amigos in its Plaza of Respect, an outdoor space with a light sculpture designed to inspire others to follow in the trio’s footsteps.
Fiorenza hesitated to accept the honor. “He said, ‘Martin, what I do is because of my belief. I’m doing the Lord’s work, ‘”Cominsky recalled.
It wasn’t until Cominsky explained how he hoped the Plaza of Respect would encourage others to put their beliefs into action that Fiorenza got on.
“It was that kind of message that he wanted,” Cominsky said. “Above all else, he’s a humble man. He’s just great and he continues to be a trustworthy leader. “
Auxiliary Bishop George Sheltz said Fiorenza served as a pastor in the first church where he was appointed.
“He’s a very dear man to me,” said Sheltz. “He gives great advice and he’s someone I’ve always looked up to. He was always ready to listen to you and help you in any way he could. “
Sheltz laughed and said that Fiorenza would often involve his fellow priests in his projects.
“We always joked, ‘Don’t let him grab his elbow,'” Sheltz said. “Because then he asks you to do something and you cannot say no.”
Sheltz said his admiration for Fiorenza had only grown over the years.
“He’s a great leader of the Church, and he’s carried on in his own way,” Sheltz said.
Lindsay Peyton is a Houston-based freelance writer.