Gerald “Jerry” M. Costello, the founding editor of Catholic New York—whose writing informed readers about Catholic news for more than 60 years, died July 19 after a long 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 nationally and internationally with Cardinal John O’Connor, Cardinal Cooke’s successor as Archbishop of New York.
His Editor’s Report column, must reading for Catholic New York subscribers, covered meaty topics of the day in a clear, concise style that left no question where he stood on important issues.
Catholic New York was one of three newspapers Costello founded in an illustrious journalism career that included stops in daily newspapers and the Catholic press.
He also was the founding editor of The Beacon, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., 1966-1981, and Suburban Trends, a weekly that began publishing in Riverdale, N.J., in 1958.
In 2004, he was recognized with the St. Francis de Sales Award, the highest honor awarded by the Catholic Press Association (CPA) for distinguished achievement in the Catholic press. His nomination for the award cited Costello as “a true Christian and Catholic gentleman who personifies the spirit of St. Francis de Sales.”
It also said “ his outstanding and long-continuing performance in Catholic journalism” displayed “precisely the excellence, originality and initiative the award standards demand.”
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.
Bob Zyskowski, retired editor and associate publisher of The Catholic Spirit newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and president of the CPA, 2007-2009, remembered his mentor and friend as “such a good newsman, so classy, so professional, so wise.”
“With the arrival of Catholic New York, I knew The Chicago Catholic — where I was the managing editor at the time — had some real competition to be the best diocesan newspaper in the county,” Zyskowski recalled. “Jerry and the team he gathered knew what news was, and they covered it in words and photos all over the archdiocese.
“Jerry had a sense of what a Catholic newspaper was supposed to be, and CNY’s regularly earning the Catholic Press Association’s first-place award for General Excellence during his tenure was the proof,” Zyskowski said.
Catholic New York, under Costello and managing editor Anne Buckley, broke on the scene by garnering more awards than any other newspaper in the country in each of its first two years in the annual CPA competition and never looked back
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 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.”
After growing up as 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, he moved with his family to Hawthorne, N.J., where he attended public elementary and high school.
Beginning at age seven, Jerry took the bus to Paterson, N.J., for lessons on the alto saxophone, planting a seed that would become a lifelong passion for music.
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, nevertheless 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.
A Funeral Mass was offered July 23 at Holy Spirit Church, Pequannock. Burial was at Our Lady of Magnificat Cemetery, Kinnelon, N.J.