Bishop William Curlin, the bishop emeritus of Charlotte, North Carolina, died Dec. 23 at the age of 90. He earlier served for many years as a priest and bishop in Washington, where he was chaplain of the Gift of Peace home for the poor and dying operated by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DIOCESE OF CHARLOTTE Bishop William Curlin, the bishop emeritus of Charlotte, North Carolina, died Dec. 23 at the age of 90. He earlier served for many years as a priest and bishop in Washington, where he was chaplain of the Gift of Peace home for the poor and dying operated by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

Bishop William G. Curlin – the bishop emeritus of Charlotte, North Carolina, who earlier served for many years as a priest and auxiliary bishop in Washington and was known for bringing Christ’s love to the poor and sick and for his friendship with St. Teresa of Calcutta – died on Dec. 23 at Carolinas Medical Center of cancer. He was 90. This past May, Bishop Curlin celebrated his 60th anniversary as a priest, and said then that he learned early on in his priesthood to regard those he served as part of his family.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said in a statement, “With the news of the death of Bishop William Curlin, bishop emeritus of Charlotte, North Carolina, we recall his longtime service to the Church of Washington and his engagement with the Missionaries of Charity. We hold his memory dear and pray for the repose of his soul.”

Charlotte Bishop Peter J. Jugis in a statement praised his predecessor’s legacy, saying, “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."

A vigil prayer service for Bishop Curlin will be held at St. Gabriel Church, 3016 Providence Road in Charlotte, at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 1. The Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 2, also at St. Gabriel Church. Following the funeral Mass, Bishop Curlin will be buried at Belmont Abbey in Belmont.

Bishop Curlin, a Virginia native, was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1957 by then-Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle. In Washington over the years, he served as director of vocations for men and as pastor of St. Mary, Mother of God Church and of Nativity Parish, both in the District of Columbia, and as the chaplain for the Gift of Peace home, where Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity care for the sick and dying, including people with AIDS.

Pope Saint John Paul II named Bishop Curlin as an auxiliary bishop of Washington in 1988 and as the bishop of Charlotte in 1994. Bishop Curlin retired in 2002, and devoted much of his retirement to ministering to the sick and dying.

In 2016, Bishop Curlin was interviewed about his friendship with Mother Teresa by Mark Zimmermann, the editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper in Washington, for an article for the Crux Catholic website.

A few weeks before St. Teresa of Calcutta was canonized, the bishop told Crux that his friend didn’t like being called a “living saint” during her lifetime. “She just wanted to be a little nun doing God’s work. She didn’t want fame.”

Bishop Curlin met Mother Teresa in the early 1970s, when he was pastor of St. Mary Mother of God Parish in Washington. She was in town for a Catholic group’s conference, and visited the priest at his rectory, where they talked for hours and struck up a friendship.

Her words and example, he said, taught him to see Jesus in the poor, sick and dying, and to bring Jesus’s love to them.

In 1980, Catholic Charities opened Mount Carmel House, its first homeless women’s shelter in Washington, at a former convent at St. Mary’s Parish.

The priest and sister kept in touch over the years through letters and phone calls. Mother Teresa asked him to lead retreats for her and her Missionary of Charity sisters.

“I always said she gave me a retreat,” he said. “…I was not her spiritual director. I was a priest and a friend. She shared with me her spiritual journey with Christ.”

During a visit to Calcutta, where Mother Teresa and her sisters had gained world renown for their service to the poor and dying in the city’s streets, she encouraged her priest friend to help bathe and then bless an old man dying of leprosy. Her words to him, “If you look with your heart, you’ll see Jesus lying there,” changed the future bishop’s approach to his ministry, helping him understand that when works of charity are inspired by an internal relationship with Jesus, then good deeds became acts of love, and you can see Jesus in the face of the poor, and they can see Jesus in you.

“That helped me enormously in my work. (Then) it wasn’t just social action to help people. She said, ‘When you’re feeding a hungry person or washing a poor leper, your hands are the hands of Jesus,” the retired bishop said. “…For Christians, social action is the action of Jesus in us. That’s it in a nutshell.”

While pastor of Nativity Parish in Washington in the mid-1980s, then-Msgr. Curlin ministered to a Vietnam veteran who had AIDS, and anointed the man and was with him when he died. Concerned that people with AIDS had no place to go, the priest discussed the problem with Washington’s then-Archbishop James A. Hickey, and the future cardinal agreed to convert the building that served as the former headquarters of Catholic Charities to become a home for people dying of AIDS, and he invited Mother Teresa to have her Missionaries of Charity staff it.

Mother Teresa attended Archbishop Hickey’s dedication of the Gift of Peace home in 1986, and her sisters began their work there serving people dying of AIDS and other terminal illnesses, and also offering sanctuary there for sick and elderly homeless people. Then-Msgr. Curlin was appointed as the home’s first chaplain.

“Mother Teresa said people with AIDS were the lepers of the western world,” said Bishop Curlin, who said the love and compassion that Mother Teresa and her sisters demonstrated helped foster community support for people with AIDS, after some neighbors had initially voiced fear and opposition about the home.

In his interview with Crux, Bishop Curlin said the Gift of Peace home has reflected its name, with the Missionary of Charity sisters by their joyful, prayerful presence bringing the peace of Jesus to the sick and dying.

Later after Bishop Curlin was appointed to Charlotte, Mother Teresa sent Missionaries of Charity there, where they continue to serve unwed mothers and the poor, and teach the faith to children.

After Mother Teresa died in 1997, Bishop Curlin was invited to ride on Air Force One to attend her Funeral Mass in Calcutta. Her funeral procession offered an unforgettable sight, as people ran alongside the caisson carrying her simple wooden coffin, the same caisson that bore Mahatma Gandhi’s body after his death in 1948. Bishop Curlin said people in the crowd wept, some threw flowers, and others held signs with messages including, “We love you. You will always be our mother.”

Bishop Curlin said St. Teresa’s own spiritual struggles over the years – when she experienced spiritual emptiness, doubt and despair as she yearned for God’s presence and approval – didn’t diminish her legacy. In a phone call shortly before she died in 1997, Mother Teresa told her friend, “My key to heaven is, I love Jesus in the night.”

Today’s Catholics can emulate Mother Teresa in many ways, in addition to her approach of bringing Christ’s love to the poor, Bishop Curlin said. “She made time throughout the day to speak to Jesus through prayer,” he said, noting how she also had a deep reverence for the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. “The Eucharist was the center of her world, her life,” he added.

Bishop Curlin said in his retirement, he continued to be inspired by his friend’s example, as he carried out his main ministry of visiting the sick and dying. “You’re bringing Jesus’ love to them. There’s great joy in that,” he said.

The keepsakes in his home included a small statue of her on a bookshelf and a pillow embroidered with her portrait and the words, “Give of your hands to serve, and your heart to love.” On another shelf was a photo of Curlin and Mother Teresa, inscribed with a personal message encouraging him to be “all for Jesus through Mary.”