Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Boston Mourns "Everybody's Priest"

Today, Beantown prepares to send off a legend -- Fr Bill McCarthy, the parish priest whose decision to set up overfill cots for the homeless in his church basement a quarter-century ago led to the building of Father Bill's Place, a free-standing shelter that's taken in over 25,000 folks from the streets... in the last six months alone.

Ordained in 1952 and pastor of Quincy's St John the Baptist parish until his 1995 retirement, McCarthy kept an active hand at the shelter until his death last week at 82:
Born to Irish immigrant parents in Haverhill, the Rev. McCarthy had friends and admirers ranging from shelter guests to the late Thomas Flatley, the billionaire Milton real estate developer who called him “the salt of the earth.”

For Massachusetts housing advocate and former Father Bill’s Place director Joe Finn of Quincy, the Rev. McCarthy was a man of deep, matter-of-fact faith – “a very generous human being with an intense awareness of the need of people around him.”

Nationally known homeless advocate Philip Mangano called the Rev. McCarthy “a modern good Samaritan” who tended to the immediate needs of those on the street and worked to get them into secure housing and a stable life.

“He saw them not as ‘the other,’ but as his neighbor,” said Mangano, director of the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness in President George W. Bush’s administration.

As pastor at St. John's in Quincy and later the face of Father Bill’s Place, the Rev. McCarthy was tireless in his efforts to raise attention and money for “those who aren’t recognized,” as he put it in a 2007 Patriot Ledger interview.

Terse and persistent, he would not hesitate to push wealthy donors like Flatley for additional donations, even after they had handed him checks for $50,000 or $60,000. When he went to city hall to press his case, he usually parked his aging car in the mayor’s reserved space. No one objected.

Finn, now a Quincy city councilor, said the Rev. McCarthy was an early advocate for dealing with poverty and housing as the root cause of homelessness, “not as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice.”

At the same time, Finn said the Rev. McCarthy never lost sight of the immediate needs of those who came knocking at the church door for help.

Once, at St. John’s, another priest on staff discovered that all the mattresses had been removed from the rectory’s guest rooms. The Rev. McCarthy had given them to a family that had just found a place to live but had no furniture.

The Rev. McCarthy said he never considered another vocation. A graduate of St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, he was assistant pastor in Chelsea and Dorchester before becoming pastor at St. John’s in 1977.

He opened the emergency shelter that became Father Bill’s Place in the winter of 1984 with a few cots in the church basement as overflow beds for the Salvation Army’s shelter. He quickly discovered that did not sit well with all his parishioners.

“If you want to be popular, don’t start a homeless shelter,” he said.
The tributes to "everybody's priest" have overtaken the local papers, but one testimony from a former Place resident pretty much sums it up: "He was like God."

Last night, Father Bill's Place pulled in $300,000 at its annual "Food Fest" funder, the first of which raised $3,000 in 1994.

As McCarthy's successor at the helm noted that "Father Bill never wanted to turn anyone away," the evening's proceeds were pledged to "go directly to making sure, all year round, we never turn anyone away who comes to our doors."

On a related note, faced with an ever more pressing shortage of its active clergy, the 2.1 million-member Boston church has raised its priests' retirement age from 70 to 75.

While the pre-change policy of eligibility to seek "senior priest" status at 70 will remain in place, early retirees must now remain available to fill-in at parishes until reaching the later milestone.

PHOTO: Greg Derr/Quincy Patriot-Ledger