In Your Midst

From the Archives

Dec. 2010

Peter Fitzgerald, the Apostle of Skid Road 

Peter Fitzgerald, the Apostle of Skid Road

The Church of Our Lady of Good Help, Seattle’s pioneer church, had a long connection with St. James Cathedral.  First established at Third and Washington in 1870 by Father Francis Xavier Prefontaine, it was moved to Fifth and Jefferson in 1904 when the valuable land where it stood was sold to help fund Seattle’s new Cathedral.  In 1912, it became a station of the Cathedral, staffed by Cathedral priests, and for many years it served as a center for the Cathedral’s outreach to the poor of the city. There was a free clinic in the basement, operated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul—and there was Peter Fitzgerald.
        Peter Fitzgerald was the sacristan at Our Lady of Good Help Church for decades, as much a part of the place as the statue of Our Lady of Seattle which stood above the altar (and which now stands in the Cathedral Chapel).  The soft-spoken Irishman had come to Seattle in 1907 in the wake of the Alaska Gold Rush.  Working as a surveyor near the Chilcoot Pass, Fitzgerald had known a few who got lucky and went home rich; but he had known many more who had gambled and lost everything, ending up on the streets.  As sacristan of Our Lady of Good Help Church, he did not forget those experiences.  In addition to his duties as sacristan—maintaining the church building and preparing for the Masses—Fitzgerald ministered to the down-and-out of the city with quiet dedication.  He scoured the waterfront and made regular rounds of the hospitals, jails, and cheap hotels, armed with copies of the Catholic Northwest Progress (“It’s a Catholic paper,” he would say, and then add with a smile, “you’re Catholic, I presume?”).  He would bring the sick to the free clinic at Our Lady of Good Help, and when people were too ill to come with him, he would bring the Church to them, leading one of the Cathedral priests up dark tenement stairways to bring the sacraments to the dying.  In 1940, Fitzgerald was awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope Pius XII, an honor rare enough to be reported in Time magazine.
        The Church of Our Lady of Good Help suffered serious damage in the earthquake that hit Seattle in 1949, and had to be torn down.  Less than a year later, Peter Fitzgerald, known throughout the city as the “Apostle of Skid Road,” died at St. Luke’s Infirmary in Centralia.
        Fitzgerald was buried from St. James Cathedral on April 10, 1950.  Bishop Connolly was present, Msgr. Gallagher, Cathedral pastor, presided, and twelve other priests filled the sanctuary, while hundreds gathered to remember him.  It was Easter Monday, wrote Sister Bernard, one of the Sisters who had cared for him in his last illness, “so he was buried among lilies… He was buried near the priests of the diocese whom he loved and who loved him.  His reward will be great.  We find ourselves praying to him, instead of for him.”

        Special thanks to Matthew Whalen, great-nephew of Peter Fitzgerald, for sharing the story of Peter Fitzgerald with us.

Corinna Laughlin is the Director of Liturgy at St. James Cathedral

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