After 46 years as an active priest, the Rev. Tom Fitzgerald has retired, giving him more time to pursue in earnest a pastime that his always been a big part of his life.
The Rev. Tom Fitzgerald understands the verse from Matthew's gospel -- "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" -- on several levels.
After 46 years in the ministry, Fitzgerald retired this summer from the Church of St. Genevieve in Centerville. And while he's scaling back on the "fishers of men" duties, he's continuing with his other favorite job -- fishing for fish.
"Fishing can teach us so much," Fitzgerald said. "You never know if you're going to get anything. You can't assume anything. It teaches you that you can't assume. And it teaches you patience."
And on days when the fish don't bite, "you can just be there and fish and enjoy the scenery ... and it just feels good to be alive," he said.
"When you get out there on the lake, it's just a very peaceful thing."
Fishing has always been a part of Fitzgerald's life, dating to no-frills trips with his father as a child.
"My Dad took me fishing at Turtle Lake, and we used to rent a boat for a $1 a day and row," he said.
"My father was a railroad man, so we could have gone any place on the train, but he wanted to get away from trains on his days off," Fitzgerald said. "So we went up to Camp Lake by Mille Lacs and we'd fish. That was always our vacation."
A calling to the church
Fitzgerald, 72, graduated in 1958 from St. Agnes School in St. Paul. He was a counselor at the Catholic Youth Camp (CYC) and attended St. Paul Seminary.
He was ordained in 1966 and served at the Cathedral of St. Paul until 1973, when he was appointed pastor at St. Michael's in Stillwater. Stillwater was home until 1987, and his next assignment was pastor at St. Rita's in Cottage Grove.
It was 1999 when Fitzgerald came to Centerville as St. Genevieve's 23rd pastor. He's been there ever since.
"I like to set down roots," he said with a laugh. "It takes a while to get to know all the people. It's been 13 years at St. Genevieve. I come, I stay, and then I leave."
Fitzgerald's love and knowledge of fishing is well known among the St. Genevieve parishioners.
The chef's secret
He has a reputation for cooking up homemade sunfish dinners after he's been on the lake. Each year, his sunfish dinner is raffled off at the St. Genevieve's Parish Picnic silent auction -- for big money.
The top bidder gets a sunfish dinner party for eight to 10 guests, prepared, served and blessed by the chef at his lakeside home by the church.
"No secret to it," he said. "Just grind up saltine crackers, and dip them in there, don't use egg. It's a dry batter, but very light. And fry it really hot until brown and crispy. Then you taste the fish, and not the batter!"
Now the retired priest lives in White Bear Township. Fitzgerald said he's getting used to being able to fish on days besides Thursday, which was always his day off.
"I still help out [at the church], but there's no responsibility," he said. "That's a huge difference. I can preside over the eucharist, but then I can leave. And I do like that every weekend I'm out somewhere new. I get to go to all the other places, and see the different parishes. Every parish is different, and people are people."
A fish story
Fitzgerald added that anglers are anglers.
They don't expect to cast nets into the water and pull up fish just because a priest is in the boat. He remembered a day a few years ago when he really wanted the fishing to be good.
A local TV camera crew was tagging along to do a story on the fishing priest.
"It was the worst fishing of my whole life," he said. "It was just awful. I pulled up one tiny fish, and that was it. But even though I've had some really good fishing days, I've had bad ones, too. But it's still fishing.
"If you catch fish, great. If you don't, well, you don't. At least then you don't have to clean them."
Kelly Jo McDonnell is a Twin Cities freelance writer.