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A Mass of Christian Burial for the Rev. James Hoge will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 23, at St. Leo Abbey, 33601 State Road 52, St. Leo, Fla. A wake will be at 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 22, also at St. Leo Abbey.
Back when only about a dozen Catholics lived in Citrus County, the Rev. James Hoge came to establish a church.
Six parishes and a Catholic school later, the influence of the man known to many simply as “Father” touched multiple thousands of Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, countywide.
The Rev. James Hoge died Saturday. He was 96.
“I consider him a real ‘old-time’ missionary,” said Monsignor George Cummings, Hoge’s longtime friend since their days in seminary in Alabama. “Back in the early days, he traveled around, starting parishes. In places with only a few families, he’d say Mass in people’s homes.”
Cummings, who founded Good Counsel Camp in Floral City, said when the camp first started, Hoge would go out and find kids “even in the wilderness of Lecanto” to bring them to the camp so they could learn catechism.
“He was a walking example of what a priest should be,” he said.
Hoge, who grew up around Lakeland, first came to Citrus County in 1944. Newly ordained, his territory was Hernando and Citrus counties, with no churches in Citrus County and only three little chapels in Hernando County. In 1948 he started a mission church in Inverness, then left to teach at St. Leo prep school. He returned to Citrus County in 1962.
“They had a congregation in Inverness and in Crystal River and I was pastor in both places,” he told the Chronicle at his 90th birthday party in 2006. “I was the only one, and that was a long drive in those days — (State Road) 44 wasn’t too good then.”
Longtime Inverness resident Dorothy “Dot” Fitzpatrick recalled the early years when her family would travel to Crystal River for Mass.
“My boys were some of the first altar boys — Father Hoge taught them how to be altar boys,” she said. “We became good friends and stayed friends even after he moved to St. Leo (in 2005). He was a wonderful man, a wonderful priest and a wonderful friend.”
Those who knew Father Hoge can attest to his fondness for peacocks. In 1971, he had gone to visit a friend when a wayward peacock wandered across a field.
Hoge and his friend captured the bird, and the friend kept it for a while. However, as Hoge had explained, “a peacock is a big bird, and they leave big droppings.”
His friend didn’t want to deal with the mess any longer, so he and Hoge wrapped the peacock in a blanket and put it in the trunk of Hoge’s car.
“It became my friend,” Hoge said. “In fact, he fertilized my lawn real good. After that, I proceeded to buy a pea hen and grew a flock. At one time I had about a dozen peacocks.”
At the time, Hoge was pastor at St. Benedict in Crystal River. A historical mural in that church’s parish hall shows Hoge with his peacocks.
As the parishes in the county grew, so did the need for a religious school. In 1985, Hoge approached a friend whose family had just sold their furniture business.
The friend’s father had just died and Hoge asked her if she would like to set up a memorial.
“How about a million dollars to start a Catholic school?” he asked, and she agreed.
Today, nearly 200 students attend Pope John Paul II Catholic School in Lecanto.
In 1991, Hoge was named the Chronicle’s Citizen of the Year because of his many contributions to Citrus County, including founding both Citrus United Basket (CUB) and Daystar Life Center.
County Commissioner Joe Meek commented on Facebook Monday: “Father James was a wonderful man, who did so much for Citrus County. He was instrumental in opening Central Catholic School (now Pope John Paul II), and served as my principal at the school. In addition to bringing a school to Citrus, he was involved with numerous charities and worked to help the less fortunate of our county. Our community is a better place because of him.”
Father Hoge also served as president of the county’s historical society in the 1990s and was instrumental in fundraising for the restoration of the Historic Courthouse.
“He was an excellent historian, especially when it came to the railroads and especially the railroads that came through Citrus County. He did a lot of research on it and wrote articles about it,” said John Grannan, president of the Citrus County Historical Society. “His father was a railroad man. He used to say if he hadn’t been a priest, he would’ve worked for the railroad, too.”
Grannan said Hoge had a keen mind when it came to history, and if you needed to know something about a pioneer family or a local historical event, Hoge was the person to ask.
“Fortunately, he wrote a lot of it down, so we still have it at the historical society,” he said.
Father Hoge officially retired in 1992, although for more than a decade he continued to say Mass in his Connell Heights home. In 2005 he moved to the abbey at St. Leo where he served Mass at nearby churches and stayed active in ministry until his death Saturday.
The Rev. James Johnson, pastor at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Inverness, said Hoge was well-liked by everyone.
“He was a quiet man with a deep faith,” he said. “He was a visionary, especially when it came to starting a Catholic school. He was a great man and a great priest and his death is a loss to the church and to Citrus County.”
Contact Chronicle reporter Nancy Kennedy at 352-564-2927 or email@example.com.