The Most Rev. Howard Hubbard was a 38-year-old street priest working with the poor and addicted residents of Albany’s South End when he got a telegram from Pope Paul VI asking him to be bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.
That was back in 1977. On Sunday afternoon, the Troy native and longtime Albany resident climbed the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception pulpit for a special Mass celebrating 50 years as a priest — and 36 as bishop.
More than 1,000 people crowded under the echoing stone cathedral vault. Scores of deacons, priests and bishops — even Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Edward Egan, the current and former archbishops of New York — filed down the center aisle. From the front pews to the folding chairs in back to the entryway, the place was packed. All were there for Hubbard.
“Fifty years is a long time,” said diocese spokesman Ken Goldfarb.
A half-century is a lot of time to do any one thing, but that’s not actually the main reason people showed up. Hubbard will turn 75 in a few weeks. By church rules, he’ll have to send a letter of resignation to the Vatican on his birthday. Sunday served as a sort of retirement party — a celebration of his service.
The man has a long and reluctantly impressive resume.
“All I ever wanted was to be a parish priest,” he said.
Early on: Social work
In his early years of ministry, Hubbard was told by a church superior to pursue a social-work degree. That degree led him to the poorer fringe neighborhoods of Albany. At a certain point, he noticed the effects of drug addiction and the
gaping hole in treatment options.
“I discovered that not only was there not an addiction treatment program in Albany,” he said, “but there wasn’t one in the whole Northeast.”
He founded Hope House to fill that void, continuing to work with at-risk populations for years.
Then he got the papal telegram.
“They didn’t have email in those days,” Goldfarb said.
Hubbard was told not to talk to anyone about the prospective appointment, and to decide within 24 hours. For a guy who just wanted a simple life of parish priesthood, it wasn’t all that easy.
“But I would guess it’s hard to say no to the pope.” Goldfarb said. “At the time, he was the youngest bishop in the country.”
Decades later it was clear from the large turnout, if by nothing else, that he did plenty of good as a bishop.
Barbara DiTommaso sat in a folding chair near the back, almost behind a pillar. She served on the Diocesan Commission on Peace and Justice under Hubbard from 1979 until her recent retirement and knew the man pretty well.
“He was known as a street priest before any of this,” she said, “and I think he brought that with him.”
Through the decades, she said Hubbard pushed the limits of Catholic tradition. He reached out to the Jewish community, then later to Muslim and Hindu populations. He never stopped working with the poor, even while leading the 125 parishes and 360,000 Catholics of his diocese.
DiTommaso worked with Hubbard lobbying against the exploitation of South American refugees in the 1980s — then against the death penalty and abortion rights as the issues came to public attention.
In 1986, he formally apologized to the Jewish community for the church’s acts of anti-Semitism.
“I wouldn’t call him an activist bishop,” she said. “He’s just very caring. He always tried to remove the barriers between people and fulfillment.”
It was a bittersweet service. Many of the crowd, like DiTommaso, knew Hubbard. He spent his whole ministry in Albany, which is rare in the Catholic Church. All those years made him friends and between liturgies he joked with them about the Red Sox and about cleaning out a spot for him in the cathedral crypt. People laughed, but there was also a somberness in the air.
“It’s odd to see him go,” said one priest who did not give his name, “but he’s done a lot. I think he deserves it.”
Hubbard will likely retain his seat for at least a few months while a new bishop is chosen.
According to Goldfarb, other New York state bishops will send recommendations to the Vatican, and then Pope Francis will decide.