Anthony J. Azzarto, S.J. — Sept. 15, 1938 – April 15, 2023

We laughed with him. Man did we ever laugh with him. We cried with him, whether it was as he lost his own mom, we lost a classmate, saying goodbye at graduation and countless other moments. We celebrated with him, at weddings, baptisms and yes, even funerals, when he made the impossible, tolerable. We saw him get to see his Dodgers win the World Series not too long ago. We took for granted, perhaps, he would always be here with his.

He was a giant, invincible it seemed.

But this world lost a great one Saturday, April 15, 2023, when the Rev. Anthony J. Azzarto died aged 84 in the Bronx after a brief illness. He was Father A, Father Azzarto, Father Tony, Tony, TAZ, AASJ. He was everything to so many generations of alumni he served, and became a brother to after. And it will never be the same without him.

He was born in the Bronx in 1938 and fortunately, for reasons we may never know, his parents sent him to Brooklyn Prep for high school. When he was just 17, after getting his diploma, he entered the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, and it was exactly what he embraced every day for the rest of his life thereafter — for 67 years.

When he was a young Jesuit scholastic, Jersey City got its first taste of Tony as he taught for a few years at St. Peter’s Prep, years before he was ordained a priest. He always came back, whether it was after he went to study intensive theology, or after two stints in Benin City, Nigeria, West Africa.

Jesuits must be obedient — so each time he was assigned away from St. Peter’s, he accepted it gracefully. But anyone who knew him was keenly aware — he was most at peace, most himself, most effective, when he was at Prep.

And it was there he did so much of what we remember him for today and always. Whether it was at Sea Bright, Mount Arlington or elsewhere leading an Emmaus retreat, in the classroom, in his impossibly messy office, the cafeteria, anywhere, he brought God to scores of young men in ways completely unthinkable otherwise. He brought God to many who were Godless.

Small things like candles, apples, wooden crosses, envelopes, turned into items treasured more than an autograph from Mickey Mantle.

He wrote so many letters by hand in handwriting that needed translators — it was horrific at times how it looked, in blue Flair pen format — yet we always knew what it meant, somehow. Those notes were always uplifting, came with photographs, but more essentially, a positive message, whether it was during difficult times being away for college and university, during a divorce, a family member’s death. He had a way to make you feel like you were the only person in the world who mattered at that moment — and as rough as life could get, it was going to be OK if we trusted in God.

He was everywhere we were, whether it was the baseball fields of Lincoln Park, the gridiron at Caven Point, the ice rink at Bayonne High School, the courts at Grand and Warren, our living rooms, a restaurant, anywhere really — and he got there early, and he was, most of the time, the one who turned the lights off at the end of the night.

If the basketball team was playing a triple-header, he wouldn’t just be there for the varsity game like many others — he was there at 4 o’clock for the freshman game, 5:30 for JV and at 7 for the varsity match. He screamed. He cheered. He clapped. He praised the players when they won.

He praised them even more when they lost.

He couldn’t sing for a lick, but he always sang — whether it was our Alma Mater “Pride & Glory.” Or a hymn like “Sing a New Song,” the lyrics to which anyone who knew him from the 1970s on knows by heart to this very day.

He baptized and buried some of the same people. He offered Communion to those whole believed, not just those who were fully “initiated” by silly church rules. He never wore fancy vestments, sometimes choosing just a stole to go with his Prep garb.

The old Jesuit retreat house in Sea Bright.

We sat in a circle, didn’t have constantly stand and sit, then kneel and sit and stand and kneel. We simply remained in that circle and listened to a man whose every word was meaningful, powerful, memorable, empowering.

He cared what we thought — not what he thought. He put the least of us on a pedestal we didn’t deserve and he never, ever accepted praise, the limelight or anything remotely close to it. All he ever did was show anyone who would listen what it is like to be loved and to take that love and “Pass it On.”

Oh there were times he got annoyed, yes. And when it came to someone like me, who laughed at all things appropriate or inappropriate, I found myself getting the glare of death often. But he’d never yell, never curse, never say anything off color — he just let you know you messed up (and you’d never want a repeat performance again after that.)

He and I once went to see a movie in the fall after I graduated from St. Peter’s in 1992 — and the movie we saw? “Menace II Society.”

“This looks interesting,” he said to be as we look at the available titles. So we said what the heck. What we didn’t know? That movie had more curses in it than almost every movie ever made.  I wish I could tell you what he said to me after we grabbed a meal after the movie, but I will save that for anyone who decides to ask personally.

We can simply say it is not suitable for print.

Emmaus 100 — Oct. 28, 1991, with Tony at bottom left corner of pic.

He never said “no” when I asked him to come say Mass when I was leading retreats at St. Anthony’s or Oratory Prep — and sometimes, he’s show up in a 24-passenger school bus because it was the only vehicle available at the Jesuit residence.

He was inducted as a Legend of Prep not even a year ago — and thank goodness he got to see that in life because he truly was legendary. Really, the words “of Prep” aren’t needed, because “Legend” says it all. He was not a Man for Others, he was THE Man for Others. He was father, brother, teacher, mentor, counselor, priest, friend.

Everything he did was simple, yet larger than life. Giant, really.

And now he is no longer of this earth.

But his voice, his wisdom, his influence, will remain with the thousands of us still alive who knew him, who were made better people because of him, who never knew life without him. He will never be replaced. We will never be the same without him.

But wow is this world such a better place because Tony Azzarto, S.J., once lived in it — and gave every ounce of his being, always for the sake of those he knew.

Rest in peace, Tony.

Your banners will forever still guide us, wherever we go.

Learn more about the writer ...

Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.