The Charlotte faith community has lost a pioneer.
The Rev. Joseph Kerin, a Catholic priest who birthed the two biggest parishes in the 46-county Diocese of Charlotte, died last week (Holy Week, it should be noted). He was 82.
One of the pleasures of my job is that I get to meet some exceptional people, and Kerin – down-to-earth, pastoral, ever-upbeat – was high on that list.
A native New Yorker, Kerin landed in North Carolina back in the 1950s, when many in the Tar Heel State still regarded Catholicism as some kind of foreign religion.
In the decades since, as thousands of Catholics moved here from the North, the West and Latin America, he held many posts: high school teacher and principal, chancellor of the diocese, director of the Hispanic Catholic Center and others. He even ended up a Monsignor, an honorific title bestowed by the pope.
But Kerin was happiest when he had another title: Pastor. Members of at least five churches got to call him that, including St. Matthew in Ballantyne and St. Mark in Huntersville – now the largest and the second-largest parishes in the Charlotte diocese.
Kerin was the founding pastor of both, back before they even had their own buildings.
For three years, starting in 1986, the flock at St. Matthew worshiped in the Tower Place movie theater in Pineville.
“We ended up using at least four of the theaters for our service and religious education,” the good Father told me years later. “We used the lobby as a nursery.”
In 1989, St. Matthew – named for the patron saint of bankers – began holding Mass in a gymnasium.
Then, in 1996, it finally moved into its own 33,000-square-foot church. St. Matthew is now the spiritual home of 33,000 Catholics from 9,400 households, making it Charlotte’s biggest congregation and one of the largest in the country.
In 1997, then-Bishop William Curlin turned to Kerin to start a church in the northern part of Mecklenburg County, which was attracting nearly as many Catholic transplants as south Charlotte.
St. Mark began in a bowling alley – Northcross Lanes at the Lake.
Hundreds of worshipers sat around the ball returns while Kerin, speaking into the PA system, blessed the bread and wine up at the concession stand-turned altar.
“Our Lady of the Lanes,” Kerin and others dubbed it. Known for his sense of humor, he later told me his favorite of the many jokes about having Mass amid all the alleys and gutters was: “Don’t strike out. Go to church.”
In 2009, St. Mark got its own 26,000-square-foot sanctuary and now serves 5,000 families.
Both St. Matthew and St. Mark named their parish centers after Kerin.
On Tuesday, Bishop Peter Jugis celebrated Kerin’s funeral Mass at St. Mark, with an assist from nearly two dozen priests.
Monsignor John McSweeney, current pastor of St. Matthew and one of Kerin’s oldest friends, gave the homily, or sermon, recalling the popular priest’s love of his church families.
“In each of his many assignments,” McSweeney said, “he always tried, to the best of his ability, to be a shepherd of his flock.”
That was the thing about Kerin: For all the bricks and mortar, he never forgot that what really mattered was the people.
Or as he once put it when asked about worshiping in a movie theater and a bowling alley: “The people themselves are the church. We can use any building and make it sacred for God.”
-- Tim Funk