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Spotlight Report

  Brian McGrory  

The church's kinder face


QUINCY - It's 3:30 in the afternoon, the pale sun fading from the winter sky, as the lowest of the economic low gather again at the double doors of a house of miracles known as Father Bill's Place.

All across the nation, retailers are pleading for a burst of holiday spending. Kids are hoping for PlayStation 2. Mothers are praying that their sons are not sent off to a distant war.

And during the week before Christmas, the homeless men and women of the South Shore want nothing more than a hot meal and a safe place to sleep. For that, and for so much more, they can thank this remarkable man named Father Bill.

These days, the face of the Catholic Church is a despicable one - priests in handcuffs, cardinals in cover-ups, Vatican officials in denial. But forget all that for a moment and consider the Rev. William McCarthy.

The sparse hair atop his head hasn't had the benefit of a comb in years. The words lurch from the side of his barely open mouth, kind of like Jackie Gleason in ''The Hustler.'' He's a religious smoker. He missed half his chin in the morning shave. His name will probaby never be uttered in the Vatican.

No matter. At age 76, his devotion remains a simple one: help those who have fallen through those proverbial cracks, the people whose faces you might briefly look at but never really see. He could have settled for being a parish priest, but as he said, ''I don't want to rust out, but wear out.'' So along with Father Bill's Place, he also raises money and converts houses on the South Shore and Cape into places that welcome those with nowhere else to go.

He is being decimated by state budget cuts these days - $230,000 less this year from Father Bill's Place alone - but it doesn't seem to matter. The mission is an unwavering one, and few are the people who are ever turned away.

''What have you done for the poor lately?'' he asks, mocking his own fund-raising pitch. And then, more contemplative, he adds, ''I take the Gospel message seriously: Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you're doing to me.''

This has not always made him popular. When he shows up at a house for sale on the South Shore, neighbors panic and protest, fearing the people - poor people - who are destined to move in next door. Father Bill has never seemed to care.

Inside Father Bill's Place one recent afternoon, two men nearly came to blows over an empty chair.

In the lobby, the security guard frisked all the guests on their way in the door. A woman on the pay phone told someone on the other end of the line, ''I'm inside a shelter,'' before dissolving into tears. A young man on a nearby phone whispered into the receiver, ''I love you.''

In two rooms in the back, 95 beds are spread out. In the front is an empty room once used to separate and counsel addicts and alcoholics. Budget cuts have shuttered the program. The women's shelter, with 38 beds, is two blocks away.

Government funds pay for only half the beds; Father Bill and John Yazwinski, the executive director, shake down the wealthy for the rest, to the tune of $600,000 a year.

Private contributions are up, despite the problems with the church. Hope is constant, despite the bad economy. In a place like this, they take success wherever they can find it, and they often find it in the lessening shades of anguish.

It's the Christmas season, and Father Bill and so many like him are doing what they've always done best: helping the poor. They're part of the quiet glory of an institution struggling through an inglorious time.

Reporter's Note: Readers responded with a torrent of generosity to a column last week on Christmas in the City. Tens of thousands of dollars, along with well over a thousand gifts, were contributed. Sunday's event for 2,300 homeless children went off without a hitch. ''It was incredible,'' organizer Jake Kennedy said of the contributions. Many, many thanks.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 12/20/2002.
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