Bishop McCarthy, retired bishop of Austin and Houston native, dies
August 19, 2018
Bishop John Edward McCarthy, who served in Houston and Austin and provided national leadership for the Church in its work to address systemic poverty, died Aug. 18, 2018 in Austin. He was the second executive director of the then-Texas Catholic Conference (now the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops) from 1973-1979.
The son of George and Grace (O’Brien) McCarthy, he was born in Houston on June 21, 1930. The product of Catholic education (All Saints Elementary and St. Thomas High School), he attended St. Mary’s Seminary and the University of St. Thomas, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1956. On May 26 of the same year, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest at St. Mary Cathedral Basilica in Galveston.
His ministry in the church started at St. Pius Parish, Pasadena, where he inaugurated a social ministry program at the parish. He relished telling how he would give a box of groceries to parishioners and ask them to hand deliver to a needy family, thereby gifting the giver with a better understanding of the causes and ramifications of poverty.
He quoted James 2:24 “by our works you will know us” often during his career, which included first St. Cecilia and then All Saints parishes in Houston, before being appointed executive director of the Bishops’ Committee for Spanish-speaking Catholics based in San Antonio. One of the committee’s most notable actions during his tenure was support of farm workers in improving their situation.
A two-year stint in Washington, D.C., from 1967 to 1969, allowed him to be one of the founders of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, now the U.S. bishops’ major domestic anti-poverty effort. In the midst of a nation coming to grips with racism and systemic poverty, the CCHD provided a means for local communities to fund self-help programs and hold civic leaders accountable for community improvements. During a weekend retreat, McCarthy and other socially-conscious priests hammered out the initial concepts of the CCHD. In 1970, the US bishops launched the campaign, mandating it fund "such projects as voter registration, community organizations, community-run schools, minority-owned cooperatives and credit unions, capital for industrial development and job training programs, and setting up of rural cooperatives.”
Father McCarthy returned to Houston in 1969 as pastor of St. Theresa Parish. There, he developed a “Sisters in Social Services” program which became a model adopted by Catholic Charities USA as parish social ministry. In 1973, he was named executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference, the Texas bishops’ state agency. Six years later, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
In 1986 he was appointed the third bishop of Austin. He came to a diocese whose see city, Austin, was still something of a sleepy college town. The Diocese had about 115,000 Catholics who gathered in 107 parishes. Bishop Vincent Harris’s most quoted advice to his successor was to stay clear of the long-running rivalry between the two large universities in the diocese, the Aggies and the Longhorns. By the time he retired, 14 years later, there were about 400,000 Catholics and 20 more parishes. Bishop McCarthy began a whirlwind of efforts to meet the needs of his burgeoning diocese, establishing missionary programs abroad and at home, encouraging parishes to bolster their social advocacy and charity work, and opening Catholic schools and parishes as more people moved into the Austin area. He also launched its first Synod, expanded its retreat center, established the Diocesan Law Project which organized hundreds of volunteer attorneys and interpreters to provide free legal services to those in need, and oversaw major initiatives with a parish near Monterrey, Mexico and the Diocese of Juticalpa, Honduras. Perhaps all of his work could be summed up in his signature conclusion, “Let us go forth, and let us go forth together.”
After his retirement on Jan. 2, 2001, Bishop McCarthy enjoyed numerous hobbies, including a blog. In 2013 he published a collection of his writings, “Off the Cuff and Over the Collar: Common Sense Catholicism.” He is survived by a sister-in-law, Charlene McCarthy of Houston, and extended family.