For Geraldine “Gerry” Saitta, being a Catholic meant living by the Christlike tenet of extending a hand to anyone in need.
When she died on April 8, 2021, at age 81, the wife, mother and grandmother left a legacy of selfless service in parish communities in three states, including close to 50 years of service for St. Bonaventure Parish in Huntington Beach.
“Serving others … That is what my mother based her faith in,” Gerry’s daughter, Sue Ann Kuiper said. “Mom’s one belief was that you could go to church, but you need to translate that into practicing what you preach.”
Gerry’s husband of 60 years, George Saitta, said his wife was of service in the Catholic Church since the time they met in their hometown of Clifton, New Jersey in the late 1950s.
“Her whole life,” Gerry’s husband said. “All the time … help, help, help. I don’t care who it was. She grew up that way.”
When George, an electrical engineer, took a job at Kennedy Space Center in the 1960s, he moved with his wife and two young children to Florida.
Gerry immediately began volunteering at the local parish.
GERRY SAITTA, THIRD FROM RIGHT, WITH OTHER VOLUNTEERS COLLECTING FOOD FOR THE HOLIDAYS IN NOVEMBER 1997. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SAITTA FAMILY
In 1973, when George was transferred to Barstow, the children attended Mount Saint Joseph Catholic School, which served a predominantly low income, underserved community.
When Gerry discovered many children had not been vaccinated and were coming to school without a lunch, she led an effort to bring state sponsored school lunch and immunization programs to the Mount Saint Joseph’s community.
The family moved to Huntington Beach in 1974, kicking off a 45-year relationship with St. Bonaventure Catholic Church and School.
Gerry volunteered under Father Michael Duffy, St. Bonaventure’s founding pastor, and continued serving under pastors Monsignor Kerry Beaulieu, Fr. Bruce Patterson and current pastor Fr. Joseph Knerr.
“I just have a lot of appreciation for Gerry for her compassion for those in need,” said Msgr. Beaulieu who was witness to Gerry’s volunteer efforts for his 11-year tenure at St. Bonaventure. “She was especially fond of senior citizens who often did not have sufficient food to get by or help with bills and things.”
Shortly after arriving at St. Bonaventure, Gerry was asked by then Pastor Monsignor Duffy to take over as director of the HOPE (Helping Other People Every day) program.
An acronym for “Helping Other People Everyday,” HOPE’s mission was to supply food, clothing and other resources to the underserved families and seniors in the city.
In 1978, after being asked by the pastor to oversee HOPE, Gerry guided the program’s growth towards becoming one of the county’s most respected food distribution sites.
During the first holiday season under Gerry’s leadership, 25 families received food baskets for Thanksgiving.
By 2007, more than 800 families received Thanksgiving food baskets and another 800-plus families received food baskets and gifts for Christmas.
Along the way, Gerry forged relationships with the Second Harvest Food Bank, Orange County Food Bank, the Oakview Task Force, United Way and Catholic Charities.
“She was one busy lady, but she was always positive,” said Kuiper, who took over as director of HOPE since her mother stepped down in 2015.
Today, the program provides food, clothing, household items and health supplies to those in need in Huntington Beach.
Gerry also coordinated fund raising campaigns at St. Bonaventure, volunteered for projects at St. Bonaventure School and served as the food booth chairperson for the annual parish festival for 13 years.
“She never drew attention to herself, but she did draw attention to the needs of people for food and assistance,” Msgr. Beaulieu said. “She said clients don’t come here to have their situation plastered all over a newspaper. We are not here to toot our own horn. We are here to do the work on a daily basis.”
In 2014, Gerry received the Italian Catholic Federation’s Pope Saint John XXIII Award, the highest award given by the federation to a lay person of any denomination who “exemplifies humanitarian service to society.”
Past recipients of the national award include actor Danny Thomas, NFL Hall of Fame football player Dick Butkus and actor Joseph Campanella.
Before being presented with the award, the nominating committee received letters of recommendation on Gerry’s behalf from Msgr. Beaulieu and Fr. Patterson, the Diocese of Orange, the principal of St. Bonaventure School, the Norbertine Fathers, a hospice chaplain and several parishioners.
“She was doing her best to put the Gospel into practice in a very practical, day to day way,” Msgr. Beaulieu said. “She is a great example of an unsung hero. Gerry made a huge contribution to the community, not only in the parish, but in the Diocese of Orange.”