April 18, 2023 – Fr. Anthony J. Azzarto, SJ, died on Saturday morning, April 15, 2023, after a brief illness. The Jesuit who described himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” went home to the God whom he served so long and so well.
Fr. Azzarto was born in Brooklyn on September 15, 1938. An avid, and life-long, Brooklyn Dodgers fan, he attended Brooklyn Prep from 1952 to 1956. On July 14,1956, right after his graduation, Fr. Azzarto entered the Society of Jesus at Bellarmine College, the Jesuit Novitiate in Plattsburgh, N.Y. His Jesuit course of studies was standard for those days: two years of novitiate and two years of juniorate (at Plattsburgh,1956-60); three years of philosophy studies (at Loyola Seminary, Shrub Oak, N.Y., 1960-63); three years of regency (at St. Peter’s Prep, Jersey City, N.J., 1963-66); and four years of Theology (at Woodstock College, Md., 1966-70).
Having been ordained a priest on June 12, 1969, and with an M.Div. Degree in Theology in hand, Fr. Azzarto’s first priestly assignment was to Gonzaga Retreat House in Monroe, N.Y. (1970-72), where he gave retreats and was local superior. Fr. Azzarto loved giving retreats but returned to St. Peter’s Prep in 1972 where he was student counselor and taught theology and English for the next eight years (1972-80).
In 1980, the provincial of the then New York Province asked for volunteers to go to the missions. Despite his reluctance to leave St. Peter’s, for six years (1980-86) he served the people well in St. Joseph’s Parish in Benin City, Nigeria, where he became pastor in 1983. There were many vocations to the Society of Jesus from St. Joseph’s in those years, and most can be traced to Fr. Azzarto’s gentle ability to be a guiding light. Fr. Azzarto is remembered as well for introducing at the Easter Vigil the rite of baptism for adults by total immersion, and group weddings for many parishioners who had been married for many years by native custom, but not in the Church.
In 1986 Fr. Azzarto returned to St. Peter’s as chaplain and teacher of religious education. Affectionately referred to as “Father A,” Fr. Azzarto was especially popular among the students, and among the alumni whose weddings and baptisms and funerals he was always ready to celebrate. He was reportedly present at virtually every St. Peter’s sporting event including freshman basketball games, and track and field events; he could even be found cheering for the rowing team on the Passaic River in North Arlington.
During these years, Fr. Azzarto returned to Nigeria during several summers, and from 2005 to 2007 he served as pastor of Christ the King Church in Lagos. Upon his return to the USA, this time for good, Fr. Azzarto returned to Jersey City where he resumed his work as student counsellor and alumni chaplain at St. Peter’s Prep until his “retirement” in 2018.
That year he moved to Murray-Weigel Hall, the Jesuit health facility in the Bronx. His assignment was to pray for the Church and the Society, but Fr. Azzarto could be found regularly on the PATH train to Jersey City where he continued to serve the St. Peter’s students and alumni. He was full of energy and kept in contact with so many of his friends, both old and new. He had defied Covid-19, but his heart could not keep up with his schedule. As Lent 2023 drew toward its close and Easter approached, Fr. Azzarto grew weaker each day. During Easter week his constant prayer begged God to take him home. On Saturday of Easter Week, God answered his prayer, and Fr. Azzarto died peacefully. May his good soul be at rest, and may he finally enjoy some good food at the Heavenly Banquet.