Jack Morrison, who led Catholic Charities, was guided by Christ’s call to love and serve the poor
Oct 8, 2018
When Jay Morrison delivered a eulogy at the recent Funeral Mass for his father, , he said his dad’s favorite biblical quote summarized his life and work.
“Matthew 25 is my father’s legacy,” he said. “Through my father’s example and life’s work, he taught his family the importance of having compassion for those less fortunate. He tried to emulate Christ in everything he did.”
John R. “Jack” Morrison – who led Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington in the 1980s when it greatly expanded its outreach to the poor, the homeless and immigrants – died on Sept. 11 in Connecticut, where he had grown up, concluded his life’s work in social service, and retired. He was 77. While with Catholic Charities in Washington, he worked with Mother Teresa in helping the future saint and her Missionaries of Charity establish the Gift of Peace home for people with AIDS and other terminal illnesses.
An obituary in the Hartford Courant noted that he died “surrounded by his loving family.” His survivors include Betsy Morrison, his wife of 54 years, and their six children and nine grandchildren.
After serving as the executive director of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington from 1982-88, he then served as the archdiocesan secretary of development until returning home to Connecticut in 1990 to become executive director of the Hartford district of Catholic Family Services in the Archdiocese of Hartford.
When he left his work in the Archdiocese of Washington, a Catholic Standard article noted that Morrison’s philosophy toward social service was reflected in his favorite biblical quote, Matthew 25:35-40:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me… Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Those words of Christ seemed to form a blueprint for Morrison’s work at Catholic Charities in the nation’s capital and in the five surrounding Maryland counties that constitute the Archdiocese of Washington.
In his final talk as the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities’ director in 1988, Morrison said, “We are not just another social service agency. We are people of faith who believe in the individual dignity of every person. We can and do make a difference in the lives we touch.”
Under Morrison’s leadership, Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington more than doubled in size, serving more than 75,000 people annually. In that 1988 talk, he noted that Catholic Charities in that past year had provided donated food to 23,131 people; given a quarter of a million dollars in financial assistance for rent, utility payments and medicine; housed 2,358 homeless people in its 14 shelters; and assisted 4,500 immigrants and refugees from South America, Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
“This past year, 140 persons suffering from AIDS were served through the Gift of Peace and the AIDS emergency fund, and 46 persons, including a seven-year-old child, died in our care,” he said.
While Morrison directed Catholic Charities in Washington, the agency began its Health Care Network and Legal Network, enlisting the support of area health care and legal professionals to provide volunteer care and assistance to those in need. Over the years, those networks have provided millions of dollars in pro bono service to thousands of poor people in the Washington area. During that era, Catholic Charities also began the Share Food Network, a community based organization now based in Landover, Maryland, that provides more than two million pounds of nutritious food at discounted prices to area families and individuals.
Also under his leadership, Catholic Charities established the McKenna House transitional shelter in Washington, which helped homeless men find jobs and permanent housing, and the agency began Angel’s Watch, the first shelter for women and children in Southern Maryland. In addition, Catholic Charities worked with the Spanish Catholic Center to open a medical and dental clinic to serve immigrants in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in the nation’s capital.
Morrison noted that the agency’s dedicated volunteers provided 75 percent of its services every day, which included working at homeless shelters, parish-based counseling centers and food pantries, and serving the homebound elderly, immigrants and people suffering from AIDS.
“Think about homelessness,” he said in one talk. “Perhaps we cannot yet recognize Christ in those with nowhere to go, but we can certainly praise Him by helping them.”
Cardinal James Hickey, who was then the archbishop of Washington, said at Catholic Charities’ annual awards dinner in 1988, “I don’t think I have ever witnessed a more impressive transformation in a major agency… Catholic Charities is now in 63 locations around the archdiocese, trying to place its services where those in need find themselves.”
And the cardinal – who was archbishop of Washington from 1980-2000 and who died in 2004 – used words from Matthew 25 as he praised Morrison’s work when he announced his appointment to lead the archdiocese’s development efforts: “Jack has inspired us and challenged us to reach out in new ways to serve ‘the least among us.’ Jack is a man of deep faith strongly committed to social justice and Catholic education. He has a real talent for turning dreams into concrete programs of service.”
After becoming the archdiocese’s secretary for development, Morrison helped raise $12 million for its Cornerstone for Tomorrow capital campaign that provided funding for a scholarship endowment, Catholic youth programs, housing for the elderly and outreach to the hungry, homeless and to pregnant women in need. He also oversaw the annual Cardinal’s Appeal, which supports the archdiocese’s educational and charitable outreach.
After Morrison’s death, he was remembered for his impact on the poor in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Michael McGarry, who served as president of Catholic Charities when Morrison worked there, said, “Jack was a person of great faith who was committed to serving the least among us. He truly believed that God would provide… and God did provide. Jack originated the (agency’s) annual gala which today is a valuable source of revenue. He help create SHARE, he was the moving force creating McKenna House, and of course, he was committed to conveying the Otis Street property to Mother Teresa as an AIDS hospice. What he really accomplished was taking Catholic Charities from essentially an adoption agency into one that reached out to all in need. A remarkable achievement by a remarkable man. God bless him.”
John Carr, now the director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, was archdiocesan secretary for social concerns and worked with Morrison in Washington during the 1980s.
“ was an extraordinary example of the Gospel in action. He lived the Beatitudes every day,” Carr said. “His leadership helped transform Catholic Charities of Washington into a preeminent source of help and hope for thousands of our neighbors every year. His extraordinary faith, intelligence, leadership skills and dedication brought Matthew 25 alive in caring service to the ‘least of these.’”
Carr noted how Morrison, on short notice, transformed the administrative offices of Catholic Charities into the Gift of Peace convent, so that Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity could offer it “as a caring home for persons with HIV-AIDs or terminal illness who had nowhere else to go.”
Praising Morrison as “a great father, a good friend and a tremendous example of Christ’s love and our faith in action,” Carr said “he made our Church a more faithful and caring community and Washington a more compassionate and just place.”
Msgr. John Enzler, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, said, “I remember Jack as an unbelievable support for anyone who was down and out. He didn’t just give a helping hand, he tried to change the circumstances that kept people from moving from poverty to sustainability.”
The priest noted that his predecessor at Catholic Charities is probably most remembered for his partnership with Mother Teresa in establishing the Gift of Peace home, while also establishing shelters, food pantries and early childhood centers.
“Here is an example of a man who lived out his faith in ways that others could follow,” said Msgr. Enzler, who offered a Mass for Morrison at Catholic Charities’ chapel at its Cardinal Hickey Center in downtown Washington after learning of his death. “He was an inspiration to me, and I’m honored to follow in his footsteps as president of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington.”
Morrison emphasized the humanity of those he served, noting in one talk that the homeless people that “we at Catholic Charities have encountered,” included a former student from the University of Maryland whose only parent had just died, a former air traffic controller, an elderly woman who could not afford her rent, and many de-institutionalized mental patients and substance abusers. He noted that unlike the stereotyped view of homeless women as elderly ladies dressed in rags and carrying bags, the homeless women in Catholic Charities’ shelters were often young or middle aged, with children.
“All of these are our brothers and sisters, and the staff at Catholic Charities is determined to serve their needs,” he said.
And Morrison noted that in their work, the staff and volunteers of Catholic Charities have a special role model in Mary, who during her life was homeless, a refugee, and the mother of a condemned prisoner. “She taught us how we must respond to the least of our brothers and sisters, for indeed, all of her life, she was one of them,” the Catholic Charities director said, later adding, “…We do know as people of faith, taught by Christ, inspired by Mary, that we can and will make a difference in the lives we touch.”
Morrison, a native of Lowell, Massachusetts, earned a bachelor’s degree from Fairfield University in Connecticut and later a master’s in social work from Fordham University in New York. He studied as a seminarian for the Maryknoll order but decided against becoming a missionary after injuring his back in an accident. He met his future wife Betsy when they both worked at the Fairfield County Welfare Office in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Morrison would devote his life’s work to social services. Before coming to the Archdiocese of Washington, he worked as deputy commissioner of mental health for the state of Vermont, and then as director of children’s services for Catholic Charities in Baltimore. After leaving the Washington area, he held leadership positions for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Hartford for 16 years.
In Connecticut, the Morrisons were members of Sacred Heart Parish in Bloomfield, where Jack served on the parish council and led its Human Concerns and Social Justice Committee, and where the couple served as Eucharistic ministers. Over the years, Betsy taught at St. Jane de Chantal School in Bethesda, Maryland, and as a substitute teacher at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg.
When Betsy Morrison was a sixth grade teacher at St. James School in Manchester, Connecticut, her class sought the advice of Mother Teresa, whom the Morrisons had befriended and prayed with when Jack worked with the future saint in establishing the Gift of Peace home in Washington for people suffering from AIDS.
In an article in the Catholic Transcript newspaper of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Betsy Morrison shared words that St. Teresa of Calcutta wrote to the schoolchildren: “Be a sunshine of His (God’s) love to your parents, friends and neighbors. Do not allow anyone to feel unloved, neglected or unwanted. Carry the joy of Jesus to them.”
noted that the diminutive nun with her wrinkled skin and simple clothing changed the world by her faith and determination, and he had not doubt that she was a saint. He appreciated that she treated everyone with respect, whether she was talking to a nation’s leader or a child on the streets of Calcutta.
After Mother Teresa died, Betsy Morrison told the Catholic Transcript, “I am thankful that we have a friend in the very highest of places.”
In another speech, noted that he felt it was no coincidence that Mother Teresa often quoted from Matthew 25. “She knows better than anyone that every good deed she accomplishes is truly the work of Christ in her.”
Those words likewise guided Morrison’s life and his approach to charity. In that same speech, he said, “Charity is not giving a hungry person something to eat and going about my business. Rather, charity is sharing my life and my gifts with a hungry person with the understanding that in doing so, I am sharing my life and my gifts with Jesus Christ.”
Morrison’s obit in the Hartford Courant also noted, “One of his last projects was the Matthew 25 Scholarship Program which was developed to assist gifted, economically disadvantaged Hartford youth in obtaining a Catholic school education through financial assistance and mentoring support.”
In addition to his wife Betsy, is survived by their children Michael (Elizabeth), Jay, Mary Skowron (David), Teresa Yank (Mike) Matthew (Irina), and Catherine Morrison (Matt); by their grandchildren Anna, Olivia, Elyssa, Keegan, Christian, Elizabeth, Liam, Lycan, and Sasha; and by his sister Judith Addabbo and sister-in-law Patricia Morrison.
And is survived by those he served in his life’s work of embodying the words of Christ in Matthew 25.
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