SAN DIEGO — With his strong Bronx accent and sly smile, Msgr. Joseph Carroll was a San Diego icon.
“Father Joe,” as he was far better known, was the president emeritus and namesake of San Diego’s largest homeless services provider, Father Joe’s Villages.
After years of declining health, which saw the amputations of both of his feet as the result of complications of diabetes, Father Joe died in the early hours of July 11. He was 80.
Father Joe once said his greatest accomplishment was helping others to see that the homeless are just “neighbors who need our help.”
“When you take the name ‘homeless’ out of it … it seems to take the fear out 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 in late June 2012 to celebrate his life and work.
Father Joe added that his life had been enriched by daily encounters with people who have benefited from the programs of Father Joe’s Villages.
Thanks to a series of long-running television 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 Father Joe’s Villages.
For San Diegans of diverse faiths, he was arguably the most recognizable local Catholic. And for 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 the other way rather than embrace those who are suffering in our midst,” said Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego.
“Given the task of rejuvenating our diocesan outreach to the homeless four decades ago, he completely recreated that outreach and gave to San Diego an incredible network of programs for those without shelter that radiate a profound and unrelenting humanity and hope,” said the bishop, who was scheduled to preside an event honoring the priest’s life July 20, at St. Rita Catholic Church in San Diego.
“The housing network of Father Joe’s Villages is a testimony to his life’s work,” McElroy said. “But an even deeper testimony lies in the fact that Father Joe taught so many of us in San Diego to see the homeless as truly our neighbors, equal in dignity and children of the one God who is Father of us all. In this deeply pastoral ministry, Father Joe Carroll stands 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.
“Though I am personally saddened at Father Joe Carroll’s passing, I fondly remember the stories and laughs that we shared, and his legacy will live on in all that we do,” said Deacon Vargas.
Joseph Anthony Carroll, who became nationally known for his work with the homeless, was born April 12, 1941, in New York City.
Raised in the New York borough of the Bronx, he moved to Southern California in 1963. There, he entered the seminary.
Father Joe was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of San Diego 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 spent in parish life, including assignments around the San Diego Diocese as associate pastor of Our Lady of Grace in El Cajon, St. Pius X in Chula Vista and St. Rita in San Diego.
In July 1982, Bishop Maher tapped him to serve as director of the St. Vincent de Paul Center, which was already in existence about a quarter-century before Father Joe was even a priest.
In his early years as director, Father Joe served peanut butter sandwiches to the homeless daily. He also began traveling the country to learn about what social services were available to the poor and homeless.
He may not have been its founder, but under the enterprising priest’s watch, the center would grow into the present-day Father Joe’s Villages, which has a four-block comprehensive campus in East Village and programs across the county that house about 2,000 nightly.
Last year, the organization served nearly 12,000 homeless individuals. It has served more than 60,000 people in the past decade.
Father Joe’s Villages owns and manages 10 buildings across San Diego County and provides support services and rental assistance to even more.
Its most recent building, St. Teresa of Calcutta Villa, is a 14-story building expected to open next January. The building will include 407 units for more than 500 people and community space on every floor.
In remarks at a celebration in Father Joe’s honor in 2012, Msgr. Dennis Mikulanis, a longtime friend, said Father Joe’s appointment was named director of the St. Vincent de Paul Center after Bishop Maher and the diocesan personnel board for priests agreed Father Joe was “the biggest hustler in the diocese.”
“He has been a hustler for Christ, for the church, from the very beginning,” said Mikulanis. “None of it has benefited him. It’s benefited the church. It’s certainly benefited our community.”
In a 1984 television commercial for Father Joe’s Villages’ vehicle donation program, Father Joe made that “hustler” persona his own. His opening line was, “Hi, I’m Father Joe. I’m a hustler.”
That moniker also made it into 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 April 12, 2011, at which time he transitioned to the role of president emeritus. He retired from active ministry that November.
“Father Joe Carroll was a heroic man who helped his community with the entirety of his heart and soul. He helped the poor, the hungry and the homeless and had a gift for bringing people together in his mission to serve,” recalled U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas, who represents California’s 51st Congressional District.
“I hope the church canonizes him, as his work was truly saintly.”
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Grasska is assistant editor of The Southern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of San Diego.