Hundreds of mourners bid farewell to Msgr. Thomas J. Hartman on Saturday, as the “God Squad” star was hailed as one of the most important and remarkable priests in the history of the Catholic Church on Long Island.
Bishop William Murphy, spiritual leader of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, told a packed Church of St. Aidan in Williston Park that Hartman was bigger than the diocese.
“I will have to confess I knew about Tom Hartman before I knew about Rockville Centre,” Murphy said before giving Hartman the final commendation, or blessing, at the end of the funeral Mass.
“I know it’s true to say he was the most important clergy person in the diocese of Long Island in the many decades that he served.”
“Even beyond all those accomplishments,” Murphy added, “I don’t know a priest who was more available to more people day and night.”
The Rev. Robert Lord, a longtime friend of Hartman’s, said during the homily that the East Williston native and longtime head of Telecare, a Catholic cable TV station, left a mark like few other priests.
“He was such a good, warm, personable, giving, compassionate, happy individual,” said Lord, of Hartford, Connecticut. “Tom, I think, wove one of the widest ministry webs in American Catholic history.”
Hartman, 69, died Tuesday of complications related to Parkinson’s disease, which he publicly announced in 2003 he had been diagnosed with.
Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman gained fame as the “God Squad” — a gentle priest who played straight man to a wisecracking rabbi as they spread a message nationwide on television, in print and on radio of interreligious understanding that millions absorbed.
They appeared regularly on “Good Morning America” and even “Imus in the Morning,” with shock jock Don Imus declaring a “filth-free zone” while the duo were on the air.
On Saturday, mourners slowly made their way up the center aisle at the end of the Mass to say a final farewell to Hartman and touch him briefly in the open coffin.
One woman with a disability, wearing a pink helmet for protection, touched her lips and then Hartman’s head.
The gesture was fitting for a man who could move just as easily among CEOs and Wall Street executives as he could among impoverished immigrants — and knew and ministered to them all.
Steven Matza, 62, of Whitestone, Queens, who is Jewish, said he never met Hartman, but was so moved by his weekly “God Squad” column in Newsday and other newspapers around the country that he came to pay his respects.
“His humanity touched me and the millions of people of New York,” Matza said. “I’m very sad at his passing.”
Beyond his fame, Hartman seemed to have an insatiable energy and calling to minister to thousands of people, many of whom felt they were his close friend.
“He was there for everybody — in the darkest of times, in the brightest of times,” said Mary Toole, a hospital chaplain from Elmont. “He has walked me through the darkest time of my life.”
“A priest with gifts and talents, but above all a priest,” Murphy said of Hartman. “As priests, we sacrifice a part of our lives, and we have to recognize when it comes. As a good priest, he made it a part of himself.”
Hartman and Gellman started the “God Squad” in 1987 on Cablevision, and a decade later moved it to Telecare. After it was syndicated, it reached 15 million homes a week nationwide.
With Hartman’s health deteriorating, he and Gellman filmed their final show in 2007. Hartman also stepped down as head of Telecare.
After Saturday’s Mass, Hartman was buried in the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury.