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Priest who was San Diego’s icon for his homeless ministry dies aged 80

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) – With his strong Bronx accent and smirk, Msgr. Joseph Carroll was a San Diego icon.

“Father Joe,” as he was much better known, was the president emeritus and namesake of San Diego’s largest homeless service provider, Father Joe’s Villages.

After years of declining health, which saw both of his feet amputated as a result of complications from diabetes, Father Joe died in the early hours of July 11. He was 80 years old.

Father Joe once said that his greatest achievement has been helping others understand that the homeless are just “neighbors who need our help.”

“When you take out the name ‘homeless’… it seems to eliminate the fear of working with our neighbors in need,” Father Joe told about 800 people who had gathered at the Town and Country Resort & Hotel in Mission Valley at the end of June 2012 to celebrate his life and his work.

Father Joe added that his life had been enriched by daily encounters with people who benefited from the programs of the Villages of Father Joe.

Through a series of long-running TV commercials, in which he solicited donations of not only cars, but also boats and planes to fund local homeless services, Father Joe was more than the face of the villages. from Father Joe.

To San Diego’s of various faiths, he was arguably the most recognizable local Catholic. And to local Catholics, including bishops and fellow priests, he was a larger than life personality and a force of nature.

“Father Joe Carroll was a priest who made Christ’s message of compassion and mercy real in a world where we so often look away rather than embrace those who suffer among us,” said Bishop Robert W McElroy of San Diego.

“Given the task of rejuvenating our diocesan action with the homeless four decades ago, he completely recreated that action and gave San Diego an incredible network of homeless programs that exude a humanity and a deep and relentless hope, ”said the bishop, who was scheduled to preside over an event in honor of the priest’s life on July 20 at St. Rita Catholic Church in San Diego.

“Father Joe’s Villages housing network is a testament to his life’s work,” said Bishop McElroy. “But an even deeper testimony is that Father Joe taught so many of us in San Diego to see the homeless as true neighbors, equal in dignity and children of the one God who is our Father in God. all. In this deeply pastoral ministry, Father Joe Carroll is distinguished in our county and in our nation.

Deacon Jim Vargas, President and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages, issued a statement hours after Father Joe’s death.

“While I am personally saddened by the passing of Father Joe Carroll, I fondly remember the stories and the laughter we shared, and his legacy will live on in everything we do,” said Deacon Vargas.

Joseph Anthony Carroll, who became known nationally for his work with the homeless, was born April 12, 1941 in New York City.

Raised in the New York district of the Bronx, he moved to Southern California in 1963. There, he entered the seminary.

Father Joe was ordained a priest for the Diocese of San Diego on June 28, 1974 by Bishop Leo T. Maher at St. Joseph’s Church in Carpinteria, California.

His early years of ministry as a priest were devoted to parish life, including assignments in the Diocese of San Diego as Associate Pastor of Our Lady of Grace in El Cajon, of Saint Pius X in Chula Vista and of Saint Rita in San Diego.

In July 1982, Bishop Maher hired him as director of the Saint-Vincent de Paul Center, which already existed about a quarter of a century before Father Joe was even a priest.

In his early years as a manager, Father Joe served homeless peanut butter sandwiches daily. He also began to travel the country to learn about social services available to the poor and homeless.

He may not have been the founder, but under the watchful eye of the enterprising priest, the center would become what is now Father Joe’s Villages, which has a full four-block campus in East Village and programs across the county that shelter around 2,000 per night.

Last year, the organization served nearly 12,000 homeless people. It has served over 60,000 people over the past decade.

Father Joe’s Villages owns and operates 10 buildings in San Diego County and provides assistance and rental assistance to even more.

Its most recent building, Villa Saint Therese in Calcutta, is a 14-story building that is slated to open next January. The building will include 407 units for more than 500 people and community space on each floor.

Speaking at a celebration in honor of Father Joe in 2012, Mgr. Dennis Mikulanis, a longtime friend, said Father Joe’s appointment was made director of the Saint Vincent de Paul Center after Bishop Maher and the diocesan staff council for priests agreed that Father Joe was “the biggest con artist in the diocese ”.

“He has been a con artist for Christ, for the church, from the very beginning,” said Mgr. Mikulanis. “None of this benefited him. It benefited the church. It has certainly benefited our community.

In a 1984 television commercial for the Father Joe’s Villages vehicle donation program, Father Joe made this “con artist” character his own. His opening line was, “Hello, I’m Father Joe. I am a con artist.

This nickname also entered the title of his memoir, written with Kathryn Cloward: “Father Joe: Life Stories of a Hustler Priest”, published in May of this year.

He led Father Joe’s Villages until his 70th birthday on April 12, 2011, when he rose to the role of President Emeritus. He retired from active ministry in November.

“Father Joe Carroll was a heroic man who helped his community with all his heart and soul. He helped the poor, the hungry and the homeless and had a knack for bringing people together in his mission to serve, ”said US Representative Juan Vargas, who represents California’s 51st Congressional District.

“I hope the church will canonize him, for his work was truly holy.”

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Grasska is associate editor of The Southern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of San Diego.