Gerald M. Costello, the founding editor of three newspapers, including Catholic New York, and a writer who brought insight and clarity to Catholic news for more than 60 years, died July 19 after a battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 90.
At Catholic New York, Costello was Editor in Chief, 1981-1991, and then a consulting editor until 1996. He was hired by the late Cardinal Terence Cooke to begin the first official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, succeeding the privately owned Catholic News. Costello also worked closely and traveled extensively with Cardinal John O’Connor, Cardinal Cooke’s successor as Archbishop of New York.
He was the founding editor of The Beacon, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., 1966-1981.
Under his leadership, both newspapers were widely recognized for their excellence.
He was the founding editor of Suburban Trends, a weekly that began publishing in Riverdale, N.J., in 1958.
He was recognized in 2004 with the St. Francis de Sales Award, the highest honor awarded by the Catholic Press Association (CPA) for distinguished achievement in the Catholic press.
The year before, he became the first layman to receive the Bishop John England Award from the CPA as president and publisher of The Christophers, a Catholic organization that uses media to remind each individual God has given them a special mission in life.
He received an honorary doctorate from St. John’s University in 1997.
Costello authored two award-winning books. "Mission to Latin America: The Successes and Failures of a Twentieth Century Crusade,” published in 1979, detailed the story of countless North American priests, nuns and lay missionaries who served in Latin America in the 1960s. His second book, “Without Fear or Favor: George Higgins on the Record,” published in 1984, tells the story of Msgr. George Higgins, the late “labor priest” and highly respected Church spokesperson for human and worker’s rights who fervently believed that the Church has a responsibility to help the poor and oppressed.
Costello’s reporting clearly showed how the Church’s social teaching addressed the most pressing issues of the time including poverty, war, and racial and economic justice.
He believed passionately that journalists should be on the ground where the story was happening and talk directly to the people most affected.
Among many memorable examples of Costello’s travels to the source of a story was his interview with labor and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers union, in his remote Tehachapi Mountain headquarters in California. His long interview with Chavez and many farm workers was published in installments in The Beacon in 1973 and bought firsthand accounts to Catholic readers of the squalid living conditions and unfair pay for many growers.
His reporting took him to five continents. He traveled to Bolivia and Peru to report on the Church’s missions to the poor in Latin America; he visited Northern Ireland where he reported on the “troubles” between Catholics and Protestants; and he reported from The Philippines, Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ethiopia and Jerusalem, filing countless stories on the Church’s work to address war, famine, and political and religious strife.
In his self-published 2011 book, “So Far, So Good,” Costello said his professional achievements, as satisfying as they were, took “a back seat to raising a family with my wife, Jane.”
An only child, Costello made some adjustments as the father of six children, including a compromise on family road trips to switch occasionally from his all-news radio to a Top 40 station, and the installation of a second phone line when the bishop of Paterson continued to get a busy signal when attempting to reach Costello about important church business. Most of all, his family remembers the glorious sounds of “Papa Jerry” playing jazz and show tunes on his baby grand piano after dinner most evenings and always at family gatherings.
Born to Michael and Catherine Costello in Utica, Jerry attended elementary and high school in Hawthorne, N.J., after his family moved there. Beginning at age seven, he took the bus to Paterson, N.J., for lessons on the alto saxophone, planting a seed that would become a life-long passion for music. At Hawthorne High School, he played with the school’s marching band and dance band orchestra.
A high school elective in music theory sparked an interest in orchestral arranging. He wrote dozens of arrangements for his high school and college dance orchestras and even became an arranger for legendary composer and bandleader, Artie Shaw.
He attended the University of Notre Dame where he was a speech major preparing for a career in television. He was a member of the University’s marching band and dance band for four years.
Following graduation in 1952, he enrolled in a master’s program in communication arts at Fordham University intending to work in the television industry; however, a professor of journalism conveyed such a love of the newspaper business that Costello headed down a new career path. In 1953, he began his first job as a reporter for the Paterson Evening News. On his first day, he held the door open for another reporter, who turned out to be his future wife, Jane Van Saun. Their first date was a reporting assignment covering the dedication of a statue of Christopher Columbus.
Costello was drafted and served (1953-1955) in the 532nd Military Intelligence Battalion in Stuttgart, Germany. His military service interrupted his courtship with Jane, but the romance continued via daily letters home including a marriage proposal. They were married in December 1954 at Holy Spirit Church in Pequannock, N.J., when Jerry was home on Christmas leave.
In 1958, at age 27, he became founding editor of Suburban Trends. From 1962 to 1964, Costello was the news editor for The Advocate, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Newark. In 1964, he became the assistant suburban editor of The Herald News in Passaic, N.J.
In February, Costello's oldest son, Michael, died due to complications from Covid-19. Michael was very close to his father and gave his parents great comfort during the pandemic including frequent calls to check on them.
Costello is survived by his wife, Jane, and their daughters, Nancy Rishty and Eileen Marx, and sons, Brian, John and Bob. He is also survived by 21 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be on Thursday, July 22, from 5 to 9 p.m. at M. John Scanlon Home in Pompton Plains, N.J. A Funeral Mass will be offered 10:30 a.m. Friday, July 23, at Holy Spirit Church, Pequannock. Burial will follow at Our Lady of Magnificat Cemetery, Kinnelon, N.J.