Father Joe Carroll
Father Joe Carroll. Courtesy of Father Joe’s Villages

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, Father Joe’s Villages said Sunday.

Carroll died Saturday morning at a hospice care home in the East Village, according to the homeless organization named in his honor.

Deacon Jim Vargas, president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages said “his legacy will live on in all that we do.”

“Father Joe was a constant source of inspiration, hope and light,” Vargas said during a Sunday afternoon news conference. “He took San Diego by storm. He created innovative programs in his over 30 years 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.

Bishop John Dolan said he knew Father Joe even before the priesthood during their time at a seminary.

Fr. Joe Carroll was in attendance at the ordination of the Most Rev. John Dolan. Photo by Chris Stone

“He always had an open heart and open home, especially for the poorest of the poor,” Dolan said. “He was an amazing man who always shot for the stars. He only expected the best. He’s been a human being to human beings, rich and poor alike.”

Robert McElroy, the bishop at the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, said Carroll “made Christ’s message of compassion and mercy.”

“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.”

He added “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.”

Politicians saluted Carroll as well.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria tweeted: “Father Joe is etched in the history of San Diego. His relentless dedication to serving our most vulnerable saved, and changed, countless lives. His legacy will continue to be written for years to come.”

Former Mayor Kevin Faulconer praised Carroll as “a champion for the people that other people forgot — the poor, the sick, the homeless. He inspired an entire city to care as much as he did, creating lasting organizations that helped so many. And he did it all with a twinkle in his eye. Rest In Peace.”

State Sen. and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, called Sunday “a sad day for San Diego.”

“Father Joe was a dedicated advocate – someone who always showed up to help our neighbors in need, in big ways and small. He was a bright light of hope and love for our community,” she said.

A representative of the Carroll family, Jose F. Gonzalez, thanked the public for their thoughts and prayers.

“San Diego has lost one of its legends,” Gonzalez said. “But his legend lives on. We ask everyone to remember him on this day.”

Others, like Eric Casazza, board chair of Father Joe’s Villages, who worked alongside Carroll in providing aid to homeless people, called him “an inspiration for all of us.

“We are honored to have been inspired by his generosity of spirit and to continue his lifelong commitment to serving San Diego’s most vulnerable.”

Pat Kilkenny, chairman of the Lucky Duck Foundation, for which Carroll was a special advisor to the board of directors, said in a statement: “What (Father) Joe Carroll did in a lifetime is impossible to put into words. He was an absolutely extraordinary human being who saved countless lives and made San Diego a better place.”

Father Joe Carroll, who turns 80 on April 12, listens to a performance by the Voices of Our City Choir at an interfaith memorial service for homeless men. Photo by Chris Stone
Father Joe Carroll listens to a performance by the Voices of Our City Choir at an interfaith memorial service for homeless men. Photo by Chris Stone

Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, said: “In his three decades devoted to helping people without homes, Father Joe Carroll’s approach centered on the dignity of the individual, going beyond emergency shelter with services like health care, vocational training and finding a path to stable permanent housing. His unrelenting determination, coupled with his charm and compassion, leave an unmatched legacy.”

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 Union Tribune.

A private funeral Mass was scheduled to be held soon with his close friends and family, and further details about memorial events were expected to be made available over the coming days.

The public was invited to leave flowers and messages for Carroll in a designated space between 15th and 16th Streets on Imperial Avenue next to Father Joe’s Villages Joan Kroc Center.

Updated at 11:49 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. July 11, 2021