CHARLOTTE—Bishop Emeritus William George Curlin, third Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, passed away in the peace of Christ Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017. He was 90 years old.
Champion of the poor, comforter of the sick and the dying, friend of St. Teresa of Calcutta, Bishop Curlin preached the love of Jesus Christ during more than 60 years of priestly ministry, first in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and the past 23 years in the Charlotte diocese. His lifelong commitment to Christ and His Church was epitomized by his episcopal motto “Sentire Cum Christo” (“To Think With Christ”).
“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,” Bishop Peter Jugis of the Diocese of Charlotte said in a statement.
The reception of the body and a vigil prayer service took place at St. Gabriel Church, 3016 Providence Road in Charlotte, at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 1, 2018. The Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 2, also at St. Gabriel Church. After the funeral Mass, Bishop Curlin will be buried at Belmont Abbey in Belmont.
Born Aug. 30, 1927, in Portsmouth, Va., he was the son of the late Mary Lamont Curlin and the late Stephen James Curlin.
He attended St. John's College in Garrison, N.Y., and Georgetown University before entering St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore.
He was ordained to the priesthood on May 25, 1957, by Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. For the next three decades, he ministered mostly in poor parishes in the Washington area, where he opened a women’s shelter and 20 soup kitchens and homeless shelters. He also led the opening of Gift of Peace Home, the first home in the nation’s capital for people with AIDS.
His first assignment after ordination was as associate pastor at St. Gabriel Church in Washington. From 1964 to 1967, he was associate pastor in Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Washington. He then moved to St. Ann's Parish in Takoma Park, Md., as associate pastor and assistant director of vocations for men in the Archdiocese of Washington.
From 1968 to 1970, he served as director of the House of Formation for seminarians at The Catholic University of America in Washington. For the next 13 years, he was pastor of Old St. Mary's Church, also in Washington. While there, he directed a program for the elderly in the inner city and established Mount Carmel House for homeless women. In 1983, he was appointed pastor of Nativity Parish in Washington.
He was ordained an auxiliary bishop of Washington by Cardinal James Hickey on Dec. 20, 1988, and appointed regional bishop of the counties of Southern Maryland.
In other appointments, Bishop Curlin was named vicar of permanent deacons from 1968 to 1981. He was vicar for Theological College, The Catholic University of America from 1974 to 1980. He was appointed chaplain to Pope Paul VI in 1970 and Prelate of Honor by Pope John Paul II in 1978. He also served as chairman of Associated Catholic Charities.
He received the 1984 Community Service Award from the Office of Black Catholics.
Pope John Paul II appointed him the third Bishop of Charlotte on Feb. 22, 1994, and he was installed at St. Gabriel Church in Charlotte on April 13, 1994.
During his first visit to the Charlotte diocese after the news of his appointment, Bishop Curlin characterized himself as a parish priest who wanted to remain out among the people.
“I want to come here to help you find the Jesus in everybody,” he said.
Bishop Curlin said he didn't choose to be a bishop, preferring instead his role as parish priest. Even so, the Holy Father wanted him to be a bishop, he said. So, he told people in Charlotte, “As a pastor, my arms are open. As a bishop, my arms are wide open. I can embrace more people.”
Caring for the sick remained one of his particular charisms even after becoming Bishop of Charlotte. He had a longtime devotion to Lourdes, France, and to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (Knights of Malta), which helps lead annual pilgrimages for the sick to the Marian shrine and miraculous place of healing. He accompanied them on numerous pilgrimages to Lourdes and served as chaplain for the order’s Federal Association, ministering to the “malades” on each pilgrimage.
“When you think about it, everybody goes to Lourdes as a malade,” he once said. “Each of us has some heartache in our life.”
Bishop Curlin was a longtime friend and confessor of St. Teresa. It was during his ministry to the poor and homeless in Washington in the 1970s that he first met Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Bishop Curlin collaborated with her on several projects in the U.S., especially the Gift of Peace Home for AIDS patients, which opened in 1983 in Washington, D.C. When she visited Charlotte in 1995, he also welcomed her order, the Missionaries of Charity, to open a convent in east Charlotte, where the sisters continue to care for the poorest and most vulnerable.
Their close friendship lasted more than 20 years, until her death in 1997. Bishop Curlin was one of those asked to contribute to the official investigation of her life for the cause for her canonization. She was declared a saint in 2016.
“She saw with an inner vision,” said Bishop Curlin during a memorial Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral two years after St. Teresa’s death. “She saw with her heart. It was her belief that if you want to touch God, you reach down and touch a crying child, a dying person, you feed the homeless or just reach out to the broken-hearted.” That, he recalled, is where Mother Teresa said you would find Jesus, in the least among us.
Bishop Curlin loved to recount the wisdom of St. Teresa in his homilies, conversations and encounters with everyone he met, illustrating how one should follow Christ.
“Mother believed that Christians should be possessed by Jesus alone, and that love drives them out to the streets to serve the most needy,” he said. “She said the greatest hunger is not physical hunger; it is the emptiness of God in us crying out for the fullness of God. The greatest hunger is for God, even if we don’t know Him.”
“Her joy was a gift, one of the precious gifts we need in the world today,” he said, and he practiced that example wherever he went.
During his eight years as the Bishop of Charlotte, he ordained 28 men to the priesthood, including seven men in 2000—one of the single-largest groups of ordination classes for the Charlotte diocese. That ordination class was also among the largest in the South that year. He also ordained 19 permanent deacons for the diocese—11 in 1995 and eight in 2001.
In 1997, Bishop Curlin and Bishop Joseph Gossman of the Diocese of Raleigh co-wrote the pastoral letter “Of One Heart and One Mind,” appealing to their dioceses and to all of the state’s people “of good will to reach out to those in dire economic need.” The two bishops invited “Tar Heel Catholics and their neighbors in business, government and the community to ways of ensuring economic justice for everyone.” The pastoral letter expressed urgent concern on the condition of the poor in North Carolina and called the local Church to swift and sincere action.
On Sept. 10, 2002, he retired as Bishop of Charlotte but continued to minister to the poor and especially the sick and the dying, regularly visiting Charlotte area hospitals. Before going to bed each night, he would lay out his clothes and shoes in order to be ready for calls to rush to the hospital in the middle of the night.
For years every Christmas, he also visited the residents at Holy Angels, a private, nonprofit corporation located in Belmont that serves children and adults with intellectual developmental disabilities and with delicate medical conditions.
In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his stepfather Lt. Col. John Whipple, and his brother, Stephen Curlin.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Bishop Curlin Endowment for the Poor, c/o The Diocese of Charlotte Foundation, 1123 S. Church St., Charlotte, N.C. 28203.