From the archives: Bishop James McHugh dies at 68
This story was originally published in Newsday on Dec. 11, 2000
Bishop James T. McHugh, the leader of Long Island's 1.4 million Catholics who made his mark as an outspoken critic of abortion, died of cancer at his home in Rockville Centre yesterday afternoon. He was 68.
McHugh, who had undergone surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan several weeks ago, died while he was surrounded by family and friends at about 3:15 p.m., said Joanne Novarro, spokeswoman for the diocese.
"He died peacefully," Novarro added.
The death came less than a year into McHugh's tenure as the third bishop of Rockville Centre. In January, McHugh succeeded Bishop John R. McGann, 76, who retired after leading the diocese for more than 23 years. The Roman Catholic Church mandates retirement of bishops at age 75.
McHugh came to Long Island in February, 1999, after serving for 10 years as bishop in Camden, N.J., to serve as coadjutor bishop, an auxiliary post that identified McHugh as the direct successor to McGann.
McHugh, a native of Orange, N.J., had been diagnosed with liver and gall bladder cancer in August, 1999.
Despite his illness, he did not slow down in his fight against abortion, an act he decried as an evil that serves as evidence that modern society is gripped by what Pope John Paul II termed a "culture of death."
He used the editorial space in the diocese's weekly, The Long Island Catholic, to promote values consistent with the pope's teachings.
In fact, McHugh had become nationally renowned for his opposition to abortion even before he came to Rockville Centre.
As a staff member of the National Council of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., which he joined in 1965, McHugh served as director of the Family Life Bureau and the Office of Pro-Life Activities. He also was named director of the Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning.
In that capacity, he played a key role in crafting the church's legal challenge to Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
In 1971, McHugh was appointed papal chamberlain by Pope Paul VI and was elevated to the rank of prelate of honor by Pope John Paul II in 1986. McHugh had also served as a Vatican delegate to three United Nations conferences on population.
McHugh was widely regarded as a straight shooter who delivered his views bluntly, often aggressively taking on institutions and individuals he viewed as hostile to the church and its teachings.
Over the years, he butted heads with the Philadelphia Inquirer, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, and former New Jersey Gov. James Florio, whom McHugh pressured to resign from the Knights of Columbus because Florio supported abortion rights.
This fall, as Long Island parishes planned political candidates' nights to allow local and national office-seekers to air their views, McHugh wrote in a letter to Long Island priests that church leadership should encourage Catholics to "consider the moral dimension of the critical issues."
He went on to say in the letter that those who would not condemn abortion "should not be invited as speakers at graduation ceremonies or other public events where the invited speaker is given positive recognition or approval."
In his hometown of Orange, McHugh attended St. Venantius School and Our Lady of the Valley High School. He went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree in classical languages from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., and entered Immaculate Conception Seminary in Darlington, N.J.
He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Newark at Sacred Heart Cathedral in 1957. His first assignment was as assistant pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, and then Holy Trinity Church in Fort Lee, N.J. As a pastor, he completed graduate work at Fordham University.
His death sank the hearts of religious leaders on Long Island and in the surrounding areas who knew McHugh as a well-liked and respected cleric who was deeply committed to his faith.
"I am saddened by the passing of Bishop McHugh," said Bishop Thomas V. Daily, leader of the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens. "He fought a courageous battle in confronting the weakening effect of his final illness. As a spokesman for the sanctity of all human life, he was a brilliant communicator and prophetic voice."
The Rev. Jerry Cestare, who is assigned to the St. Agnes Cathedral Parish of the Rockville Centre Diocese, said, "It's a real loss to the people of the diocese. I think he was a man who had great hope. He was a man of the people."
Cestare said this is Advent, the season in which Catholics prepare for the coming of Christ.
"For us, we're in a season of hope and anticipation; we're preparing for the coming of Christ," Cestare said. "We believe he McHugh is with Christ."
Archbishop Edward M. Egan, leader of the Archdiocese of New York, recalled McHugh as a dear friend.
"He was a champion for life, who courageously proclaimed the sanctity of every human life, including that of the unborn," Egan said. "During these months of his illness, he continued to preach the sanctity of life, only now he added his own example of the beauty of life, even when it is attended by sickness and suffering. He carried this cross without complaint."
Novarro, the Rockville Centre diocese spokeswoman, said funeral arrangements would be finalized today. She said they would include a wake and funeral service held in Rockville Centre.
Staff writers Samuel Bruchey, J. Jioni Palmer, Graham Rayman, and Tom Demoretcky contributed to this story.