‘Tireless social justice advocate’: Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza, longtime bishop of Galveston-Houston, dies at 91

GALVESTON, Texas – Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza, the longtime bishop of Galveston-Houston and a tireless social justice advocate throughout his priesthood, episcopacy and in retirement, died Monday. He was 91.

Born in Beaumont on January 25, 1931 as the second of four sons of Sicilian immigrants Anthony and Grace Fiorenza, he was said to be a “true Texan through and through.”

His selfless dedication and strong work ethic was displayed early in his life.

Fiorenza was a popular student at Saint Anthony’s High School, captain of the football team, and senior class president. He skipped a grade and graduated high school at the age of 16, immediately entering Saint Mary’s Seminary in La Porte, Texas.

He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Galveston-Houston in 1954. While serving as pastor to several churches, he tapped into his love of medicine by becoming a chaplain of Houston’s St. Joseph’s Hospital. He also served as administrator for the Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral.

During that time, he was deeply affected after joining the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

His advocacy for social justice continued throughout his career and Fiorenza encouraged interfaith collaboration for positive social change, especially the poor and vulnerable.

In 1979, Fiorenza was pulled from Houston when Pope John Paul II named him bishop of San Angelo, but he would return in 1985 as bishop of the Galveston-Houston Diocese, dedicating himself to building the new Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, located in the heart of downtown.

Then, in 2004, the pope elevated the diocese and Fiorenza became its very first archbishop.

However, just two years later as Fiorenza reached his 75th birthday, in the Catholic tradition, he was required to submit his letter of retirement to the Vatican.

Even in retirement, Fiorenza didn’t really slow down, reporting to work seven days a week, assisting with the mass on weekends, and unwavering in his commitment to serving the faithful.

“The joy of being able to serve as a priest of the church is the important thing and to be able to bring the saving message of the gospel to people and to do that during times of great sadness and sorrow, but also times of great joy and happiness, that’s what makes the life of a priest meaningful,” Fiorenza once said.

Cardinal DiNardo succeeded Archbishop Fiorenza as Archbishop of Galveston-Houston in 2006.

“Archbishop Fiorenza was known to be a champion of civil rights and a tireless worker in overcoming the presence of racism in our community. 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.

Mayor Sylvester Turner paid his respects at the vigil Wednesday.

“There were more than 3000 Catholic bishops under his leadership and then someone who has provided a great deal of wisdom to a number of mayors, not just me,” he said.

Some referred to him as The Most Reverend but to Cassie Fiorenza Simpson, he was Uncle Joe who was always there when you needed him.

”During our baptisms, our weddings any special occasion that we had in the family. And then he would come to visit us for the holidays when he was able to,” Simpson said.

Leaving behind a legacy of being a family man and someone that touched the lives of others he didn’t even know.

”We are so glad that he was able to do what he has done for everyone here in this community and southeast Texas and around the world,” Simpson said.

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