Francis X. Zorbach

The monsignor served as pastor at St. Philip Neri Roman Catholic Church for more than three decades.

November 12, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Monsignor Francis Xavier Zorbach, a popular parish priest who served at St. Philip Neri Roman Catholic Church for more than three decades, died Saturday of heart failure at Franklin Square Hospital Center. He was 81.

Monsignor Zorbach was born in Baltimore, the sixth of eight children of George W. and Anna J. Zorbach.

He was raised on Jefferson Street, near Patterson Park, and attended St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parochial School in East Baltimore.

Monsignor Zorbach was a 1946 graduate of St. Charles High School and College and earned a degree in philosophy from St. Mary's Seminary on Paca Street in 1948.

In 1952, he earned a degree in theology from Catholic University of America in Washington and was ordained a priest by Archbishop Francis P. Keough.

FOR THE RECORD - An obituary published for Monsignor Francis Xavier Zorbach in Wednesday's editions of The Sun incorrectly stated his first assignment in 1952 as associate pastor. He was assigned to St. Adrian/St. Mildred parish, which became Our Lady of Hope Roman Catholic Church in 1967.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

Monsignor Zorbach's first assignment was as associate pastor at St. Adrian/St. Michael parishes from 1952 until 1958, when he was assigned as associate pastor at SS. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church.

At the North Charles Street church, Monsignor Zorbach immersed himself in youth activities at the church and the nearby Seton High School, where he organized and directed athletics.

During summers, he coached the Phil Jays, a softball team, and organized a swimming club at Meadowbrook.

"He recruited me off the Barclay Elementary School playground, where I was playing ball for the Phil Jays. He even recruited non-Catholics and got them to go to Mass," said Nan Whaley, who grew up in the neighborhood and now lives in Ocean View, Del.

"He was my first softball coach, and he was so charismatic," Mrs. Whaley recalled. "He didn't care whether you were black or white, a public, private or parochial school student, Catholic or non-Catholic, he got you involved."

Mrs. Whaley recalled in those days that Monsignor Zorbach drove a "priestly colored black" Barracuda automobile, and picked up his players and took them home after games.

"I recall one day when he dropped me off a block from my home. He told me it was a minute before 4 p.m., and he had to get to church to hear confessions," she said, laughing.

In 1970, Monsigor Zorbach became associate pastor at St. Philip Neri in Linthicum, becoming pastor a year later. He was named monsignor in 1990.

As he had done in previous assignments, Monsignor Zorbach continued his interest in children. He was a popular figure with parish school students, whom he visited daily.

For years, he taught sign language to kindergarteners and first-graders.

"He was very dedicated to the school, and it was very important to him. He would talk to the children every day, and he knew their names," said Anne B. Nelson, who taught for 25 years at the school she has headed since 2000.

"Oh, he was no saint, and we had our battles and low moments, but at the end of the day we appreciated one another," she said.

Mrs. Nelson, who lives next to the church, calls her home the "Parish Annex."

"He'd come over just to get a moment's quiet, and we'd talk," she said. "He really was part of my family."

"He was a dedicated priest who was available 24 hours a day. I've seen him get up and leave meals and meetings because someone else's needs came first and were more important than his comfort," Mrs. Nelson said.

Mrs. Nelson recalled Monsignor Zorbach's gregarious sense of humor.

"His sense of humor permeated everything, and in a tense moment, he'd use it to break the tension," she said.

Monsignor Zorbach established a men's club at the church, headed many fundraisers and founded "Polka Motion at the Ocean," an annual event that promoted Polish dancing and was held in the Convention Center in Ocean City.

He led the effort that resulted in a new parish center that was named for him at his retirement.

"He laid a good foundation for our parish and had a very outgoing and engaging personality," said the Rev. Dale M. Picarella, who succeeded Monsignor Zorbach as pastor in 2004. "He served generations of families through weddings, baptisms and funerals, and helping people with the challenges that faced them in their lives."

The Rev. Michael J. Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester, was a longtime friend.

"He was a great priest and one of my heroes. He was a big, burly guy who loved the food of East Baltimore," Father Roach said.

"He was beloved wherever he went and did not want to retire," he said. "He was all heart and one of our best."

After leaving St. Philip Neri, Monsignor Zorbach was in residence at Sacred Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church in Graceland Park.

For the past two years, he was at Our Lady Queen of Peace Roman Catholic Church in Middle River.

"He loved his work," Mrs. Nelson said. "He once told me he wanted 'I was a priest of God' engraved on his tombstone."

Charles J. Zorbach Sr., a brother, lives in Rodgers Forge.

"People were his hobby. He loved being around people and having a good time," Mr. Zorbach recalled. "He didn't have a lot of spare time but did like cruises, and especially vacations at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands."

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. tomorrow at St. Philip Neri, 6405 S. Orchard Road.

Also surviving are a sister, Mary E. "Bette" Zorbach of Perry Hall, and many nieces and nephews.

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