The poet pri­est of the North


Les­lie G. Fitzger­ald, D.Ps., P.P., is re­mem­bered to­day as the “poet pri­est of the North.” He was born on Feb. 21, 1898, in Har­bour Grace. He died on May 6, 1966, on Long Is­land, New York.

Be­tween those years, he dis­tin­guished him­self as, not only a Ro­man Catholic pri­est, but also as a writer of prose and verse. The theme of his sto­ries is the rugged and iso­lated parts of New­found­land and Labrador; in his bal­lads, he ex­tols the work of the priests who faith­fully worked in those ar­eas.

Fitzger­ald re­ceived his early ed­u­ca­tion at Har­bour Grace Academy. From 1914 to 1917, he stud­ied at St. Bonaventure’s Col­lege in St. John’s. He then en­tered Holy Heart Sem­i­nary in Hal­i­fax, Nova Scotia, leav­ing in 1923.

Or­dained in Hal­i­fax on June 24, 1923, the 25-year-old was sent back home as curate to Fa­ther Ed­ward J. O’Brien ( 1884-1986) at North­ern Bay. He re­mained in the com­mu­nity for two years. He then served as parish pri­est in King’s Cove, Bon­av­ista, Coach­man’s Cove and St. Bren­dan’s.

Fitzger­ald fur­thered his ed­u­ca­tion via cor­re­spon­dence cour­ses. In 1929, he was granted a two-year leave of ab­sence be­cause of eye trou­ble. Dur­ing that time, he wrote a doc­toral the­sis, Civ­i­liza­tion in the North.

In 1944, he was ap­pointed third parish pri­est at Buchans, fol­low­ing Fr. Thomas O’Neill. Fitzger­ald re­mained in the com­mu­nity for 25 years.

In 1965 he trav­elled to Texas for med­i­cal treat­ment. He also left on an ex­tended trip to the south­ern seas with Com­man­der Eu­gene F. McDon­ald (1886-1958), founder of Zenith Ra­dio. Fitzger­ald’s ex­pe­ri­ences in both New­found­land and the South Seas pro­vided much of the grist for the sto­ries and po­ems he later wrote.

His cor­pus was pub­lished in such di­verse venues as Christ­mas Greet­ings, The Adel­phian and The Mon­i­tor. In 1949, he pub­lished a full-length book, Lone Ea­gles of God, a col­lec­tion of his bal­lads, which was ded­i­cated to his “ beloved par­ents,” Pat and Mar­garet (Flem­ing) Fitzger­ald.

Fitzger­ald’s prose in­cludes Fig­gers Can Lie, The Res­cue of Cap­tain Blake, The Frus­trated Ghost of Dogberry Cove, and The Joy of De­feat.

He writes in an en­gag­ing style which im­me­di­ately grabs the reader, even if he’s guilty of lengthy sen­tences. Wit­ness, for ex­am­ple, his in­tro­duc­tion to his short story, Fig­gers Can Lie:

“ The seven­teenth of De­cem­ber was what is called here in Green Cove a ‘ blus­tery’ night. I was in my wonted place in Stormy Bill’s cosy kitchen, in the lit­tle cot­tage that was perched like an ea­gle’s nest, on the crest of Gun­stock Hill, where the do­mes­tic tran­quil­ity which al­ways pre­vailed in this homely at­mos­phere, but ac­cen­tu­ated the dis­tant roar­ing of the sea and the stac­cato patter of driv­ing hail on the win­dow­panes, which reached our ears in the con­trast­ing warmth of the crack­ling wood fire and the mel­low glow of the lam­plit kitchen.”

Fitzger­ald’s bal­lads are no less en­gag­ing. They range from The Story of Fa­ther Cole to The Bal­lad of De­mon Dan; from When Fa­ther O’Re­gan Gets Back from St. John’s to The Out­port Mer­chant-Pil­lar of the Church.

The heroes of his bal­lads are “the men who brought God’s word to the rugged coasts of New­found­land.” His po­etry is writ­ten “in the di­rect and pic­turesque lan­guage of the fish­er­folk and farm­ers,” be­speak­ing “the sac­ri­fice, courage and hu­mour of the early pi­o­neer priests who toiled in that ex­act­ing vine­yard.”

In the days about which Fitzger­ald writes, priests were “called upon as a mat­ter of course to sup­ply not only spir­i­tual guid­ance, but broad so­cial ser­vices-ex­tend­ing even to med­i­cal and den­tal care.” His bal­lads aim to re­flect “their tri­als and achieve­ments, their heart-search­ing and their tri­umphant faith.”

Again, one ex­am­ple will suf­fice. In Pas­tor Per­plexus, he writes:

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