Former bishop of Charlotte’s Catholic diocese dies at 90

By Tim Funk
Charlotte Observer
December 24, 2017

Bishop William Curlin, who died Saturday, spoke at a special Mass in 2007 at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church. Curlin presided over the rapidly growing Catholic Diocese of Charlotte from 1994 to 2002.

William Curlin (with chalice) prepares for communion during his installation as bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte in 1994 at Charlotte’s St. Gabriel Church. “I have brought you my heart,'” he said during a 2-1 / 2-hour mass.

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Bishop William Curlin, who presided over the rapidly growing Catholic Diocese of Charlotte from 1994 to 2002, died Saturday at Carolinas Medical Center. He was 90.

The cause of death was cancer, which he had battled for years.

Curlin was known as a pastoral bishop and as a longtime friend and spiritual adviser to Mother Teresa. In 1995, he brought the diminutive nun with a towering reputation to Charlotte for an ecumenical service that drew 19,000 people to the old Charlotte Coliseum. She also installed in Charlotte some of her sisters from the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order she founded in India to serve the poorest of the poor.

In 2016, during a Mass celebrating Mother Teresa’s canonization as a saint, Curlin talked about his first visit to Calcutta to see Mother Teresa. She asked him to bless and clean a leper.

“I (had) never cleaned a leper. I didn’t know where to begin,” Curlin said. “She sensed that. ... And she said, ‘Father, if you look with your eyes, you’ll see a leper. If you look with your heart, you’ll see Jesus.’ 

During his tenure in Charlotte, the ebullient Curlin said he tried to live out Mother Teresa’s words by reaching out to the poor, the disabled and those afflicted with AIDS.

Others noticed. “He talks about Jesus the way kids talk about Michael Jordan,” then-United Methodist Bishop Bev Jones of Charlotte said of Curlin in 1997. “It just flows out of him.”

Curlin’s successor, Bishop Peter Jugis, said in a statement Saturday night that “Bishop Curlin was an inspiring and faith-filled shepherd of our diocese who had a special love for the poor and ministry to those who were sick and near death. May he rest in the peace of Christ, knowing that his tireless efforts brought many to salvation in the Lord.”

Curlin was born in the Tidewater region of Virginia. His family moved to Washington, D.C., when he was 10. In 1957, he was ordained a priest. And, by the 1970s, he was pastor of Old St. Mary’s, an inner-city parish in Washington. His congregation was mostly elderly and poor. He cooked for them and built them a park on church grounds.

When Curlin arrived in Charlotte in 1994, he once told the Observer, “I saw, visibly, a very beautiful city. But underlying all that evident physical beauty, I found what I had found in Washington: People hurting.”

One of the first things he did was start an annual healing Mass on World AIDS Day and invite bishops of other faiths to join him at the altar.

Curlin was the third bishop in the history of the 46-county Charlotte diocese, which was established in 1972 and extends from Greensboro to the Tennessee line. In recent decades, the diocese’s numbers have swelled because of people relocating to Charlotte from the North and Hispanics emigrating here from the south. St. Matthew Catholic Church in Ballantyne is now the largest Catholic parish in the United States, with more than 10,000 families.

In 1996, Curlin put 55,000 miles on his Ford Crown Victoria, roaming the diocese, baptizing babies and converts, marrying couples, attending Souting events, offering spiritual solace to the sick and dying, and officiating at funerals.

The Rev. Frank O’Rourke, pastor of Charlotte’s St. Gabriel Catholic Church and one of the first priests ordained for the diocese, said Saturday that Curlin “loved being a priest and a bishop. For 50-plus years he sought to know, love and serve the Lord. His pastoral sensitivity endeared him to many who found in both his preaching and ministry a renewed hope.”

Curlin’s tenure was not without controversy. He was bishop at a time when the Catholic Church in the United States and around the world was rocked by scandal at widespread reports of priests sexually abusing children. The Charlotte diocese never approached the volume of cases of sexual misconduct uncovered in Boston and many other dioceses. But N.C. members of SNAP – Surviviors’ Network of those Abused by Priests – and others criticized Curlin for not being transparent about priests and other men accused of sexual misconduct who were allowed to work in the diocese without the public knowing about their past.

In one of the most publicized cases, Mark Doherty was hired to teach at Charlotte Catholic High School despite a warning to Curlin from the Boston archdiocese about allegations against him. Doherty lost his job after the case came to light.

Curlin would say little publicly about this and other cases. But speaking generally about the child sex abuse crisis in the church, Curlin told the Observer in 2014 that it had caused “terrible pain” and led many Catholics to no longer put priests on a pedestal.

“People began to look at their priests differently. ‘You’re not Superman. You’re not above us,’ ” he said. “God’s people have a right to judge us. Are we kind? Are we faithful? Are we chaste? Do we love them?”

During his years as bishop, some traditionalist Catholics in Charlotte wrote Curlin – and the Vatican – angry letters to say they were offended by his decisions to allow altar girls and celebrate a Mass for AIDS victims, many of whom were gay. But some of the same conservatives applauded Curlin’s strong stand against abortion.

In his retirement, Curlin spent much of his time ministering to the sick and filling in for Jugis and other priests. In the 2014 interview with the Observer, he saluted Pope Francis for reminding priests and bishops that their job is not to lord it over their flocks, but to be pastors who model the love in the Gospels.

“What a gift that man is,” Curlin said. “So kind.”

Funeral arrangements for Curlin will be released soon, said Charlotte diocese spokesman David Hains.

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