NJ.com • Aug 26, 8:00 AM
By Rev. Alexander Santora/For the Jersey Journal
His first book was on the environment. The second was a smash hit smashing Chris Christie. His third book — and first novel — brings him back to his Jersey City West Side neighborhood, where he nurtured his Catholic faith at St. Aloysius Church, right at the mouth of the entrance to Lincoln Park.
“An Irish Lullaby” tells the story of the fictional Rev. Sean O’Connor, now 75, a former pastor of St. Aloysius who’s back for a second assignment at the tail end of his career. The new pastor is a monsignor, a rank O’Connor never reached. A cast of memorable characters fills out the storyline: a Catholic deacon and his wife, staff members of the local Planned Parenthood, a rabbi, and the first Italian – it’s about time – archbishop of Newark, Mario Scaponi.
But despite the book’s disclaimer that “any resemblance to actual events, locales, persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental,” people will know several, most notably, the late Ed Ford, aka “The Faa,” a former columnist for The Jersey Journal. Ford owned Dohoney’s, a West Side watering hole two blocks from St. Al’s, which even lures Archbishop Scaponi in for a surprise party.
Then there’s Lee’s luncheonette, Moose Hall, the Jersey City Medical Center and Medical Arts Building nearby, Journal Square, and Pompei Pizza right across from St. Al’s schools.
It’s a West Side and Jersey City stew.
“It’s an assortment of priests,” Manzo, 63, a former Hudson County freeholder and state assemblyman, said of O’Connor and Monsignor Timothy Norton.
Though they are hybrids, they could be almost any of the mainly Irish pastors and priests who have served at the real St. Aloysius through its 127-year history.
Manzo did acknowledge that the real Father Gerard P. Kelly was his main model for O’Connor. Kelly served at St. Al’s from the 1939 to ’64 and was a former boxer. I never met him but he was the one curate people spoke about when I served as a parochial vicar there.
“As a young kid, I was magnetized by the guy,” Manzo said. “He was a regular guy.”
And O’Connor comes across that way with his Irish brogue and involvement in the life of the parish. He was not just a sacramental priest who stayed in the rectory. He was in the lives of the people — and also in their faces.
In one memorable scene in the book, a colleague of Aubrey Fitzgibbon, perhaps O’Connor’s chief antagonist, wants to get even with her and concocts a scene with church bulletins. O’Connor stops her in her tracks.
“An Irish Lullaby” is a good read. I worried at first when abortion became front and center where it would go. Manzo wanted to explore the pro-choice stand because “it went against my teachings as a Catholic.” He did research about the mechanics of abortion and it opened his eyes. He describes one in detail, but the direction he takes surprises.
Fitzgibbon heads the Hudson Family Planning Center and is a faithful Catholic married to a deacon at St. Al’s, Michael. She’s a feminist and a tough cookie, not unlike many of the West Side Jersey City women.O’Connor was from the old school so showdowns are inevitable.
But feeling, forgiveness and compassion are the main qualities that jump from the pages.
After serving in the Jersey City Health Department from 1977 to ’89, Manzo wrote his first book, “God’s Earth Also Cried,” about the environment.
He had been instrumental in getting the county to abandon a plan to build an incinerator when he served as freeholder. He eventually ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Jersey City five times. The last attempt snared him in Christie’s cross hairs and he was charged with corruption, which he fought successfully, costing him $100,000.
His second book, “Ruthless Ambition,” sold more than 10,000 copies, taking on Christie for what Manzo said was the politicization of federal prosecutors.
When I had lunch with Manzo at the Princess Maria diner in Wall, I was amazed to learn he was never in St. Aloysius’ rectory, which in reality is the largest in the archdiocese, and not the three-story Victorian as described in the book. It can house 10 priests, and the pastor’s bathroom can be a Hoboken bedroom. And you can enter the church without leaving the rectory.
Manzo started researching and writing his book in 2014 and is almost finished with his fourth, another novel, this one set in Asbury Park near his new home in Belmar. It’s a romance novel.
One thing you’ll take from “An Irish Lullaby”: He could go from Jersey City to the Jersey Shore, but Manzo’s heart is in the West Side of Jersey City.
“An Irish Lullaby,” by Louis Manzo, Moonshine Cove Publishing; $13.99. Available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites now; in stores next week. A book signing is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 14 at BookTowne, 171 Main St., Manasquan. For information, call 732-722-7225 or go to http://booktowne.com.