From PB&Js to full-service provider, Father Joe’s celebrates 70 years of serving the poor

Bishop leads Mass to mark anniversary of nonprofit that began in 1950 in downtown San Diego


The inspiring work of a 16th century Catholic priest as well as the every day efforts of volunteers helping San Diego’s homeless population were recognized Wednesday in a special Mass celebrating the 70th anniversary of Father Joe’s Villages.

Auxiliary Bishop John P. Dolan, the second-most senior leader in the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, officiated the Mass in observance of the annual St. Vincent de Paul Feast with assistance from Deacon Jim Vargas, president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages.

“Noble St. Vincent de Paul, beloved servant of the poor, may we follow your example and do good works among those whom society has abandoned, enslaved, or forgotten,” Vargas said, reading the Prayer to St. Vincent from his smart phone.

St. Vincent de Paul, the patron saint of Father Joe’s Villages, was born in France in 1581 and devoted his life to helping the poor. He founded several charities, was canonized in 1737 and declared the patron saint of all charity work by Pope Leo XIII.

The Prayer to St. Vincent de Paul refers to feeding the hungry, providing comfort and medicine to the sick and clothing the poor, all acts provided by Father Joe’s Villages.

The Mass was held in the nonprofit’s downtown Joan Kroc Chapel with few in attendance because of social distancing protocols during the pandemic, but was streamed live on YouTube.

“We knew people would want to come but couldn’t do it physically,” Vargas said about the decision to live-stream the Mass. “I liked it. Even post-COVID, I think the fact that we could do this online and send it to people who for whatever reason couldn’t come could is something we should continue to do.”

The Trinitarian Sisters of Mary choir sang in the courtyard, with some songs including references to helping the poor, and Bishop Dolan referred to St. Vincent de Paul with a prayer to continue to be caretakers to brothers and sisters in need.

The roots of Father Joe’s Villages date back to 1950, when Bishop Charles Buddy dedicated St. Mary of the Wayside Chapel at 811 F St. in downtown San Diego to serve the poor.

“It came together because of a growing need to help our neighbors,” Vargas said. “It was really very humble beginnings. It was just handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

The chapel and thrift store moved in to 630 Fourth Ave. in the Gaslamp District in 1962. Two years later, the two merged to become the St. Vincent de Paul Center. More moves followed as the nonprofit grew.

Father Joe Carrol came to San Diego in 1980 after being assigned to St. Rita Parish, and he took over the center the following year when it moved to 1550 Market St.

In 1991, the St. Vincent de Paul Center became St. Vincent de Paul Village and separated from the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego to become an independent, board-governed organization.

Father Joe Carroll retired in 2011, and St. Vincent de Paul Village was renamed in his honor after Vargas took over in 2015.

At the end of Wednesday’s Mass, Dolan joked that he was old enough to remember when the nonprofit was named the St. Vincent de Paul Center.

Vargas said Father Joe’s Villages has launched a fundraiser in recognition of its 70th anniversary, with a goal of raising $70,000 and signing 70 new recurring donors in the next few weeks. A donor has vowed to add $25,000 if the fundraising goal is met.

Now the largest homeless services provider in the city, Father Joe’s Villages has in the last decade helped more than 11,500 people find permanent housing, assisted 13,000 patients in its health center, prepared and served more than 10 million meals and found help for 3,300 families, Vargas said.

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— Gary Warth is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune