In 1965, the Rev. Donald Fisher sat in his rectory at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Verona, where he was an associate pastor, reading a book by the Rev. Martin Luther King. Images of civil-rights protests led by King in Selma, Ala., appeared on television.
“I don’t know what came over me, but I put the book down gently” and went to speak with his pastor, Father Fisher recalled recently.
“‘Excuse me, Monsignor, I have to go to Selma,’” Father Fisher told him. “His response: ‘Wear a helmet.’”
With that cautious permission, Father Fisher took part in the landmark Selma march. It set the direction for Father Fisher’s future ministry, one marked by protests, pottery and prayer.
In the 1960s, he mobilized citizens in McKees Rocks to battle a political machine and build enduring social-service programs.
In the late 1970s, he did mission work in Tanzania, bringing the sacraments to Maasai peoples in remote areas.
Back in the United States in the 1980s, Father Fisher was arrested multiple times protesting the nuclear arms buildup.
And in recent months, he joined protests on behalf of Martin Esquivel-Hernandez, a Mexican man unsuccessfully fighting deportation.
Father Fisher died Saturday at age 81 after suddenly passing out while riding a bus. He had been active leading retreats and in other activities to the end.
“He was a very, very good friend to so many,” said Molly Rush of Dormont, a fellow participant in civil disobedience. “He had a very sweet sense of humor. He was quite a generous guy. He just came up with the most beautiful prayers.”
Father Fisher was a longtime participant in the Thomas Merton Center and the Association of Pittsburgh Priests, organizations promoting progressive causes. The association, which is independent from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, honored him for his Selma work at its 50th anniversary celebration last fall.
“Every parish Don Fisher went to, he was committed to the work of the church, but he was not committed to staying in that rectory,” said his sister, Marjorie Gesuale of Malvern, Chester County. “His feet were on the street with the people.”
Donald Charles Fisher was raised in Brookline, where he went to Resurrection Catholic School. He later graduated from St. George Catholic High School in Allentown and St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe. He was ordained on May 20, 1961, and retired from full-time ministry in 2006.
Assigned to St. Francis de Sales Church in McKees Rocks from 1965 to 1970, he helped found the organization Focus on Renewal to help alleviate poverty and other ills. Among the enduring fruits of its work are expanded medical care for children and the elderly as well as a library, art center and food program.
“I’m sure when he started he had no idea what it would evolve into,” said the Rev. Regis Ryan, who succeeded Father Fisher in McKees Rocks. “He just knew people had problems. He was a great listener.”
Father Fisher also mobilized citizens to demand accountability from the powerful long-time McKees Rocks mayor, David Hershman.
Father Fisher went on to serve at St. Mary Catholic Church in Aleppo before going to Tanzania. His later parishes included Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament in East Hills, St. Peter in Slippery Rock and St. Regis in Oakland.
In the 1980s, he was arrested in civil-disobedience protests in Pittsburgh, New York and Washington against the growing U.S. nuclear arsenal and military budget, which he said came at the expense of the poor.
He supported the sanctuary movement in the 1980s, in which churches shielded those fleeing El Salvador’s military regime but lacking legal immigration status.
Soon after hosting two Salvadoran speakers at Blessed Sacrament, Father Fisher reported getting a visit from U.S. immigration agents. When Father Fisher refused to say where the Salvadorans were, he recalled, they left with a warning of penalties for harboring illegal immigrants.
“Blessed hospitality was what Father Fisher offered,” said the Rev. Bernard Survil, a Greensburg priest who accompanied them.
In 2008, Father Fisher helped inaugurate the new home of the Father Ryan Arts Center, a program of Focus on Renewal, in a familiar location — the Chartiers Avenue site of the late Mayor Hershman’s furniture store, a scene of Father Fisher’s early protests.
Father Fisher regularly taught pottery classes at the center, and he often donated his works to charitable causes.
He was the brother of William Fisher of San Francisco, Ms. Gesuale and the late Paul, Frank and Michael Fisher.
Visitation is from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Thursday at John F. Slater Funeral Home, 4201 Brownsville Road, and from 9 to 10 a.m. Friday at St. Germaine Church, 7003 Baptist Road, Bethel Park, immediately followed by a funeral Mass celebrated by Bishop David Zubik. Burial will be at Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery in Peters.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.