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: