To family who traveled with Archbishop to Rome and enjoyed his cooking, he was just ‘Uncle Joe’

October 11, 2022

The family of Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza visit the Brigette and Bashar Kalai Plaza of Respect at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston on the morning of Archbishop Fiorenza’s funeral Mass Sept. 29. Archbishop Fiorenza, Rev. William Lawson and the late Rabbi Samuel Karff, all known as The Three Amigos, are honored for their social justice and equality work embodied in the Pillars of Light sculptures. From left to right are Kelly and wife Mary Donaldson (Archbishop Fiorenza’s niece), Lisa and Mark Fiorenza (Archbishop Fiorenza’s nephew); Cassie Fiorenza Simpson (Archbishop Fiorenza’s niece) and her husband Mike Simpson. (Photo courtesy of Interfaith Ministries)

HOUSTON — Known by his formal title of His Excellency, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza was simply “Uncle Joe” to a slew of nieces, nephews, and relatives enjoying his Italian cooking and traveling with him to Rome.

Niece Cassie Fiorenza Simpson, who lives in the Beaumont area where Archbishop grew up, said, “I still remember those Sunday dinners after Mass at St. Joseph Church when all the family would get together for spaghetti and meatballs.”

“I was about seven or eight years old, and Grandma (Grace) and Grandpa (Anthony) Fiorenza would head up the table,” she said. “Or Uncle Joe and Uncle Charlie would be cooking outside and watching sports with a gazillion conversations going around,” she said.

“All of the nieces and nephews just loved him. He did not want us to acknowledge him as Father or Bishop; he wanted to be Uncle Joe to all of us. Even when he became so busy, he made time to come visit us,” said Simpson, who owns and publishes Viva Southeast Texas magazine.

Niece Cathy Fiorenza Russell, daughter of Archbishop’s younger brother Victor Charles (Charlie), accompanied both her father and then-Bishop Fiorenza in 1982 to Italy when she was 19 years old.

“My father was very proud of his brother, but they would argue back and forth like siblings do, even over what ingredients went into their mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe,” said Russell, who works at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic school in The Woodlands.

Archbishop introduced them both to then-pope St. John Paul II after attending Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica as the Holy Father walked among the crowd.

“It was an eye-opening trip for me to go to Rome, Milan and Florence. We even went to Sicily, where my grandfather, I called him ‘Pop-Pop Tony,” was born,” she said of Archbishop’s father.

Cathy’s mother, Marianne Fiorenza, married to Charlie, recalled Archbishop Fiorenza celebrating his younger brother’s funeral Mass in Beaumont at St. Anthony’s Basilica in 2010.

“I still remember him describing my husband as never saying anything bad about anybody, which was so true,” she said.

Archbishop impressed her with his devoutness, and his homilies convinced Marianne that she wanted to become Catholic, she said.

“He led by example. He answered my questions because Catholicism can be complicated. I always admired him and appreciated him. When I was being confirmed, I asked him if I needed to take a saint’s name. He told me, ‘You’ve got two of the best saint names already — Mary and her mother Anne,’” she said.

She summed up many people’s sentiments by saying, “I really feel blessed knowing him.”

Nephew Mark Fiorenza said, “I had the honor and privilege of living with him for 40 days as I underwent medical treatment in Houston.”
“He would wake up every morning at the break of dawn and pray his morning prayers and then pray again in the evening inside his chapel room within the house,” Fiorenza said.

This was in 2015 when Archbishop lived in a southeast Houston home near the Villa de Matel convent on Lawndale before moving into the Priests Retirement Residences named in his honor on the St. Dominic campus off Holcombe.

“He would get after me for moving the thermostat from 76 — he liked it hot — to a more comfortable 72. I told him, ‘Uncle Joe, it’s hot as Hades in here!’ But he didn’t want it budged,” Fiorenza said and chuckled.

“He also prayed over me when I was sick. He was a very special, loving man. He knew so many people and was so well loved. I visited him several times when he was last in the hospital, but he mostly did not wake up. He opened his eyes briefly and smiled,” Fiorenza said.

The nephew spoke at Archbishop’s funeral Mass on behalf of the family, reviewing how his Uncle Joe graduated from high school at age 16 and was ordained as a priest in 1954.

“To put it in perspective, he was hearing confessions at the age of 23,” Mark Fiorenza told the congregation.

Archbishop’s cousin, religious Sister Benignus Galiano, O.P., also visited him at his retired priests residence before he went into the hospital for the last time.

“I’m 99 years old, so I depend on others to drive me, and Sister Jane Meyer (recently retired head of school for St. Agnes Academy) said she would like to visit with him,” Sister Galiano said.

“I called, and he said he was up for a visit, so we went over and had the nicest talk for about 30 minutes. He was sitting up and looked so well. I thought he was going to make it,” she said.

Sister Meyer said, “He talked with us about how precious family is, and he considered many as family.”

Sister Galiano added, “I even told him, ‘Don’t you die before me.’ We’re all going to miss him, but we’ll see him again.”