PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Deacon Donald Zirkel, who as editor of The Tablet from 1968 to 1985 ushered in a new era for the diocesan weekly newspaper, died on Jan. 23 at age 95.
Deacon Zirkel spent 37 years as a member of The Tablet staff, during which he shifted the editorial policy of the paper to fully embrace the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
Deacon Zirkel took the reins at The Tablet when Editor Patrick F. Scanlan retired after a 51-year stint at the helm. The appointment of Deacon Zirkel was the first by Brooklyn’s new Bishop, Francis J. Mugavero.
Born in Ozone Park, Deacon Zirkel was raised in Incarnation Parish in Queens Village. He attended Our Lady of Lourdes School, Queens Village; the Montfort Fathers’ Junior Seminary in Bay Shore, New York; and the order’s novitiate in Canada. He later attended Fordham University and St. John’s University.
After two years of service in the U.S. Army, he married Marie Greene in 1952. They were the parents of nine children.
Following a career in the Catholic press, he served as a member of the executive staff of the New York State Division of Human Rights, and director of public information for the Center for Developmental Disabilities in Woodbury, New York.
Ordained a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockville Centre in 1979, he served at the parishes of St. Ignatius Loyola in Hicksville, New York, and Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Wyandanch, New York.
He won several writing awards from the Catholic Press Association and led The Tablet to a first-place finish in the Newspaper of the Year category in 1972.
He also was honored by the Catholic War Veterans, the U.S. Mission Secretariat, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
In “The Tablet, the First One Hundred Years,” it was noted that “Under the direction of Don Zirkel, the paper became a vehicle for promoting the spirit of ‘aggiornamento’ that had animated the Council Fathers. A writer at America magazine commented, ‘The old image of The Tablet is gone. In its place is emerging a new, Vatican II-oriented newsweekly.’ ”
In his weekly column, “From A to Z,” Deacon Zirkel took several stands that generated controversy. He was a strong advocate for women’s rights in the Church, including the ordination of women priests. He allowed for dissent on the Church’s teaching on birth control. He was a staunch critic of the Vietnam War.
He also was active in campaigns to support Catholic schools, especially advocating for tuition tax credits for parents who chose parochial education. In the 1960s, he began The Tablet’s Bright Christmas Campaign, which continues today and has raised nearly $1.6 million to buy gifts for needy children.
At times, Deacon Zirkel took strong stands that caused controversy and generated an outpouring of letters to The Tablet’s Readers’ Forum. In 1979 when Pope John Paul II visited New York, women were not permitted to serve as Eucharistic ministers at the Yankee Stadium Mass. Deacon Zirkel called the decision “sexist,” which heaped both praise and criticism upon him.
When once urged to play it safe, Deacon Zirkel said, “That has never been my style.”
“He was an extremely caring person,” remembered Sister Camille D’Arienzo, RSM, a former member of The Tablet staff. “He was very sensitive to others, to people who were lonely or excluded.”
Sister Camille said that being a deacon meant a great deal to Deacon Zirkel. “He loved being a deacon because he found it to be a way of giving service to other people.”
Tim Zirkel, Don’s youngest son, added, “My father always wanted to champion the little guy. In his homilies as a deacon and in all that he did, he supported the lost, the least, and the lonely.”
Tim said his father was, first and foremost, “a family man and father who tried to live his life walking in the footsteps of Jesus. He instilled a Catholic sense of self-respect for one another in us, his 26 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
“His talent as a writer and editor was his way of trying to promote the message of Jesus. Then he took it a step further as a deacon to serve the Church,” Tim said.
John Woods, former editor-in-chief of Catholic New York, knew the Zirkel family since he was in high school.
“Don Zirkel opened up a different world of journalism to me during my internship at The Tablet when I was a journalism student at St. John’s University,” Woods said. “I saw how seriously he took his responsibilities and how his faith was part of his everyday life.”
Mike Rizzo, a professor of journalism at St. John’s University, said he attended the same Montfort seminary as Deacon Zirkel, but generations apart. When he changed his life’s direction, Rizzo reached out to Deacon Zirkel, who offered him a semester’s internship at The Tablet.
“I remember him as a very focused, Christian man,” Rizzo said. “He gave me the opportunity to write a music column that had a Christian message. He was very supportive. I really learned a great deal from him. He was always encouraging and passionate about the newspaper business.”
Deacon Zirkel is survived by seven children: Jeanne O’Connell, Timothy, Anne Zirkel-Hagopian, Paul, Joseph, John, and Mary Pacifico. He was predeceased by Marie, his wife of 59 years, and two children, Barbara Dempsey and Thomas.
Timothy also noted that his mother, Marie, was a constant companion of his dad “as they volunteered in innumerable activities to help the needy both on Long Island and abroad.”
A Mass of Christian Burial will be held on Saturday, Feb. 11, at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Wyandanch, where Deacon Zirkel retired. A celebration of his life will follow in the auditorium.