Retired leader of Diocese of St. Augustine dies at 93

Bishop John J. Snyder presided over 17-county diocese for more than 20 years

The bishop who led the St. Augustine Diocese for more than 20 years died Friday. 

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The bishop who led the St. Augustine Diocese for more than 20 years died Friday. 

Bishop John J. Snyder, who retired in 2000 after two decades as head of the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine, died at 93. Bishop Snyder High School on the Westside was named in his honor.

Snyder presided over the 17-county Catholic diocese in Northeast Florida during a period of tremendous growth, when the number of Catholics in the diocese more than doubled, requiring the addition of eight new parishes, seven elementary schools and two high schools, St. Francis Catholic Academy in Gainesville and the high school on the Westside that bears his name, according to spokeswoman Kathleen Bagg.

"Bishop was always joyful, he really was. He saw the positive side of everything. The best way to describe him is he really, really reflected the love and compassion of Jesus to everyone he met," said Deacon David Yazdiya, principal of Bishop Snyder High School. "You found Christ when you were talking and engaged with him."

Snyder built the Catholic Center, the diocesan offices at the corner of Old St. Augustine Road and Loreto Road -- nicknamed Catholic Corners --  renovated and expanded a riverfront estate in St. Johns County into the Marywood Retreat and Conference Center and converted the old Immaculate Conception School downtown into the Providence Center that provided offices for social service agencies.

Snyder also built five retirement homes for low-income elderly, a nursing home and a retirement home for priests, where he spent his last years.

Bagg said Snyder was known as a people’s bishop -- gregarious, approachable and interested in the lives of ordinary people. He empowered laypeople, especially women, to assume leadership roles in their parishes and diocesan ministries.

“I will measure the effectiveness of my leadership by the ability and willingness of this local church to call forth, develop and utilize the gifts and talents not only of its priests and religious, but all its people,” Snyder said Dec. 5, 1979, when he was installed as the eighth bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine.

Snyder also reached out to groups that did not feel welcomed in the church -- the divorced, the disabled, gays and lesbians, inmates, farmworkers, refugees and immigrants. He streamlined the annulment process for the divorced. He established ministries for farmworkers, refugees and immigrants, offering medical services and legal assistance, as well as pastoral support. 

"He was just one of those people who truly sought to bring God's love to anyone and everyone. It didn't matter their age, their economic status. Wherever they needed a sense of love, he was willing to give it," said Father Tom Willis, of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. "He made time for each and every person, and so everyone who was every touched by him -- confirmation, marriage, baptism, whatever -- they have a genuinely wonderful memory of a man who touched their hearts and lives."

Snyder was born to an Irish Catholic family in New York City on Oct. 25, 1925. He was ordained a priest in 1951 and appointed bishop by Pope John Paul II in October 1979. His episcopal motto was "Peace in Christ."

Snyder was a loyal fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and personally chose Cardinals as the mascot for Bishop Snyder High School.

Asked once he ever wanted to be Pope, Snyder replied, “No, but I always wanted to be a Cardinal, but I couldn’t hit a curveball.”

At the high school's football game Friday evening, there was a moment of silence and a prayer for Snyder.

Funeral arrangements for Snyder will include a reception service at 4 p.m. Tuesday and vespers at 7 p.m. that evening at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. A funeral Mass at the basilica will take place at 11 a.m. Wednesday, with interment at 2 p.m. at San Lorenzo Catholic Cemetery in St. Augustine.

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