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Obituary: Pat Fenton, former priest and housing advocate, dies at 74

Pat Fenton always considered his work to be ministry.

But whether during his two decades as a Catholic priest or his three decades afterward, he was most in his element working at the grassroots level — promoting affordable housing, working for racial justice, sparring with a bishop or holding faith-infused demonstrations against government spending on nuclear weapons.

Mr. Fenton, of Morningside, died April 13 of an aggressive cancer whose symptoms appeared only a month earlier. He was 74.

“He was one of the most gentle men I've ever known, unshakable in his convictions and yet open to discussion,” said his wife, Virginia Cunningham. “He would never judge anyone else’s convictions. He would be happy to engage in conversation in a very respectful and humorous way.”

The Greenfield-raised son of Irish immigrants, Mr. Fenton was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1971. He soon became an outspoken progressive voice in the church, whether it was during his first assignment in an affluent parish in Butler or his later ones in urban neighborhoods.

He left the priesthood in 1991, becoming an administrator at Action Housing, helping to provide housing and support services for at-risk populations such as the elderly and adults who grew up as foster children.

“One of the things that led him to leave the priesthood was, he really didn’t think he was any better than anybody else, yet everybody was treating him as though he was,” said the Rev. John Oesterle, a priest and longtime friend. Mr. Fenton felt “he could not be authentic” in that role.

During and after his clergy years, Mr. Fenton was an active member of the Association of Pittsburgh Priests, a progressive group that is not affiliated with the Diocese of Pittsburgh and includes lay members. 

After his first assignment in Butler, Mr. Fenton was assigned to St. Joseph Parish in Manchester, where he resided with other activist priests including the Rev. Jack O’Malley, a longtime labor chaplain, and Father Oesterle.

It was there that they and other priests saw close-up the racial and other inequalities of the city and the nation. Locally that meant pushing for causes such as providing fair and affordable housing, and helping organize a multichurch food bank at Northside Common Ministries. Nationally that meant actions such as hosting California farm-labor organizer Cesar Chavez and other farmworkers, who would inform people here about their poor working conditions and of the importance of buying grapes and lettuce picked only by union workers.

“We had good teachers, the victims of social injustice,” Father O’Malley said. “They taught us to speak truth to high places, because we had access [to the powerful]. We had the Roman collar on, we were white males. We learned a lot about what our responsibility was.”

Fathers O’Malley, Oesterle and Fenton were among a group of priests who went annually on April 15 in the 1980s to the federal tax office. After a time of prayer and a press conference denouncing government spending on nuclear arms, they went in to tell the cashier they were withholding a portion of their taxes and redirecting it to a cause promoting peace and justice. Though they fully expected the government to garnish the full amount due, they wanted to make a statement.

During the 1984 presidential election, some bishops, including Scranton’s James Timlin denounced Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic, for her pro-choice position on abortion. Mr. Fenton and others with the Association for Pittsburgh Priests held a news conference criticizing those bishops, saying they went beyond the church’s own boundaries in taking stands on political candidates. Mr. Fenton reported getting a call from Bishop Timlin asking, “Why are you taking on the church?” 

Father O’Malley said that even after Mr. Fenton left the priesthood, “he stayed with the struggle because it was part of his moral upbringing.”

Father Oesterle said he was amazed at how well Mr. Fenton worked within systems whose power structures he opposed.

“He also didn’t like hierarchy, and yet he ended up working in Action Housing for years dealing with the banks, which are about as hierarchical as you could get, with HUD, which was impossible to deal with,” he recalled.

After leaving the priesthood, Mr. Fenton married Ms. Cunningham, and they enjoyed bicycling, travel and having regular Sunday brunches after Mass with friends who included several current and former priests.

In addition to his wife, he leaves children “by love if not by blood,” his family said: Christine Concari, Catherine Smith and David Smith; their children; a sister, Margaret Wagner; and other extended family.

A memorial Mass will be scheduled at a later date.

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