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'She was charting a new path' for church

The Rev. Veronica ''Bonnie'' Fitzpatrick was the first woman in her diocese ordained by the Episcopal Church.

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 8, 2002

The Rev. Veronica "Bonnie" Fitzpatrick made history in Florida, but it didn't matter to her parishioners.

What mattered were the hours she spent comforting and educating them, the years she spent with their children, the decades of service she gave to the Episcopal Church.

The Rev. Fitzpatrick, the first woman ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Southwest Florida and a teacher at St. John's Parish Day School in Hyde Park, died Oct. 29, one week after her 60th birthday.

She was director of Christian Education at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church downtown, leading Bible study classes and conducting daily chapel services.

"She was a very vibrant person, very articulate about the faith," said the Rev. Stephen Ankudowich, rector at St. Andrew's. "She could really give a personal, warm touch to people, interacting with them pastorally and also on an educational level."

Born in Maryland, Fitzpatrick had a lifelong love of learning. She held degrees from Towson State Teachers College in Maryland and Peabody College, Vanderbilt University and the University of the South at Sewanee, all in Tennessee.

For years, she taught special needs children in Nashville, Tenn., and in Hillsborough County.

During those years she sought peace of mind in the church. In a eulogy, her friend, the Rev. Steve Rudacille of Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church in Valrico, recalled how she had battled bouts of depression throughout her life. Her father committed suicide at home and she heard the gunshot.

In the late 1970s, she felt called by the church. No woman had been ordained by her diocese, but she was determined. For three years, she studied weekly with other prospective deacons.

"She realized that she was charting a new path not only for herself but for the church in this part of the world," Rudacille said. "She felt strongly enough about it that she went ahead and pursued it."

In 1980, the Rev. Fitzpatrick was ordained as a deacon. In the years since, several women from her church at the time, Holy Innocents', have followed her lead. Some have gone on to be priests.

She continued her love of education as a teacher at St. John's Parish Day School, where she also served as chaplain.

She always paid special attention to children. She carried a goodie basket of treats and once delivered a sermon wearing a bright orange clown wig. Shortly after becoming a deacon, she sang Jesus Loves Me at a graveside funeral service for a young parishioner.

One year ago today, the Rev. Fitzpatrick was broadsided in a car accident, suffering severe injuries that left her unable to move or speak.

Her family was devastated, but the love and kindness that the Rev. Fitzpatrick had shown to others came back tenfold. Visitors would come and read to her, and the church was packed at her funeral.

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, less than two months before the accident that would eventually claim her life, the Rev. Fitzpatrick delivered a homily to help her parishioners through the day's tragic events.

"The questions still rush at us," she said. "Where is God in all the pain and heartache and grief and uncertainty? Where is God?

"God is present -- God is in the courage of the firefighters, in the compassion of the medical teams, in the police officers, the clergy, lay volunteers, strangers reaching out to strangers, risking their lives.

"And God is holding those who died."

The Rev. Fitzpatrick's survivors include her husband, David, of Brandon; two daughters, Kellie Anderson of Scotland, and Julie Dixon, of Tampa; a sister, the Rev. Kay Rice of Ijamsville, Maryland; and three grandchildren.

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