Father Joe Carroll, iconic local priest who served the homeless, dies at 80

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) – Father Joe Carroll, the legendary San Diego priest who built a nationally known nonprofit organization to help the homeless, has died at the age of 80 after a battle with diabetes, his organization confirmed Sunday.

Carroll died Saturday night at a hospice care home in the East Village due to complications from a lengthy battle with diabetes, a spokesperson said.

“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,” Deacon Jim Vargas, President and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages, said in a statement. “Father Joe selflessly and tirelessly served our community for over three decades. We celebrate his lifetime of service.”

Carroll was president and CEO of the St. Vincent de Paul Village from 1982 until his retirement in 2011. It was renamed in his honor to Father Joe’s Villages in 2015. His namesake organization has assisted thousands of homeless residents in finding shelter, medical assistance, child care, housing and other resources since he took over nearly 40 years ago.

As the Union-Tribune notes, it all started with Carroll handing out peanut butter sandwiches downtown in the 1980s.

Carroll once said he wanted to serve more than 1.7 million meals to those in need, so he held a race to raise the money. The 5K race became an annual tradition in Balboa Park on Thanksgiving Day. Runners who raised more than $100 received a Father Joe bobblehead collectible.

In 2019, San Diego State University awarded Carroll an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of his lifelong dedication to the underserved communities of San Diego.

Carroll was born in New York, but moved to Southern California in his early 20s. He enrolled at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, in Ventura County, where he was expelled for focusing too much on material gain while running the seminary’s bookstore.

So Carroll migrated to San Diego, where he finished his studies at the University of San Diego and was ordained in 1974. He worked at St. Rita Catholic Church in Valencia Park, then was put in charge of the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop downtown, where he would find his true calling and build his legacy.

He turned a parking lot near the store into a homeless center and worked to acquire other property around San Diego to create a “one-stop shop” where services for the homeless could be consolidated. In subsequent years he built a powerful fund-raising effort, and by the time of his retirement the organization employed close to 500 people and boasted a budget of $40 million, according to the U-T.

“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,” wrote Bishop Robert W. McElroy with the Roman Catholic Diocese 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.”

The public was invited to leave flowers and messages for Father Joe at a designated space located between 15th and 16th Streets on Imperial Avenue by the Villages’ Joan Kroc Center.

A spokesperson said a private funeral mass would be held with close friends and family.

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