e-mail us


With his fighting spirit, Joe performed miracles


Joseph Mulholland died at age 73 at his home in Douglaston, Long Island, N.Y., on Feb. 3. If, as in the early church, saints were declared by popular acclamation, the 500 friends, neighbors and colleagues who flocked to the funeral of this tough, tender man at St. Mary’s Church in Manhasset would have voted him in on the spot.

But not for the usual reasons. Joe didn’t fit the profile. Happily married for 42 years to a fellow social worker, Dorothy, father to three sons and a daughter, doting grandfather of nine, he was a family man, rooted in his community and its struggles. The jobs he did so well never defined him: probation officer, creator and administrator of innovative college programs, and finally a member of the New York State Parole Board, appointed by Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Listening to Eugene Fontinell, his longtime friend, deliver his eulogy, we mourners realized with astonishment that this tireless worker for minorities, especially ex-prisoners and the disadvantaged, had performed far more than the number of miracles required for canonization. Because they were so human, so “secular,” and delivered with fighting spirit and a contagious grin, it was only after Joe’s death that they stood out as the miracles they were.

The most amazing was his lifelong victory over a serious, ongoing disability. A childhood bout with polio forced him to wear a heavy brace on one leg for the rest of his life. At school when they chose sides for sports, the other kids turned him down, shouting, “No cripples!” Troubled, Joe went to his sea-captain father, who told him he wasn’t a cripple; he could do anything he wanted to. Joe believed him.

Together with a deep abiding love of the church, this determination helped him weather the rejection he received of his teenage request to study for the priesthood. We can’t accept anyone who is handicapped, he was told. For Joe this was a signal to find other ways to serve God’s beloved underdogs. He began volunteering as a basketball coach in St. Teresa of Avila Parish in South Ozone Park, and went on to a 35-year, unpaid stint as a successful coach in the Catholic Youth Organization League, the Long Island Press and St. Francis College in Brooklyn. At the funeral, his son Joshua told us that when he played basketball for St. Francis Prep, he always had the exhilarating feeling that Joe was playing with him.

Dorothy recalls that at the risk of being ejected, he insisted on bringing in black kids to play in Catholic Youth Organization basketball. This was a first step in a lifetime commitment. Joe worked to get many of those players scholarships to prestigious colleges. In his first job as probation officer of the Queens Supreme Court, he made extra efforts to know prisoners and ex-prisoners personally. He soon realized that their chances to enter the job world depended on their educational opportunities, which were scandalously low in the early ’60s. As intellectual as he was practical, Joe became involved in setting up and running college programs for adults -- an innovation at the time. He became the first director of the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge Program, known as SEEK, at Queens College, aimed at increasing the number of minority students at the City University of New York, and was personally responsible for bringing more than 100 ex-prisoners into the program.

When he left the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge Program after political infighting developed, Joe transferred his awareness of the needs of adult learners to Fordham University, where he created and directed the imaginative EXCEL program, which soon filled with returning Vietnam vets and working people. But no matter what his job, his interest in prisoners never flagged. Just one example: As a member of the New York State Parole Board, he fought for years to gain a pardon for a young mother who had been given a heavy sentence as a driver for drug dealers, not knowing what they were doing. His concern for her child made him nag everyone he knew to pressure the governor for a pardon -- which finally came.

Like Dorothy Day, whom he used to help in the Catholic Worker soup kitchen, he felt the need for a committed but critical attitude to his church. At the beginning of Vatican II he arranged lectures in parishes and his own living room on controversial subjects such as Marxism, feminism and ecumenism. At Queens College he sponsored a debate between psychologist Erich Fromm and philosopher John McDermott on the death of God. The large auditorium was packed, and all the proceeds went to Day.

In the mid-’60s when the New York archdiocese transferred Daniel Berrigan to Latin America, moving this trouble-making priest-poet and his anti-Vietnam activities offstage, Joe got on the phone to academics, authors, editors, priests and nuns across the country. A letter appeared in The New York Times on Dec. 12, 1965, with more than 1,000 signatures, asking for Berrigan’s recall. It is hard to know what influence the letter had, but Berrigan was soon returned to New York City.

The committee Joe formed in the process of sponsoring this letter became the beginning of an organization, the Institute for Freedom in the Church. Its prestigious board issued a statement of purpose that began: “We believe there is need for a greater effort toward making the freedom of its individual members a more visible mark of the Roman Catholic church.” Though the institute no longer exists, it was the forerunner of groups such as the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, Call to Action and FutureChurch. Joe knew that political activism was as important as education in bringing about social change, and he involved himself in many other political struggles -- including a losing run for a state assembly seat of his own, and the winning campaign of Mario Cuomo for governor.

As he was about to retire from the Parole Board five-and-a-half years ago, he had a series of strokes that made it necessary for him to use a wheelchair. Later injuries and infections made him silent and seemingly incomprehensive. It was painful to see this humorous, argumentative man now passive, but it enabled those around him to show what he meant to them.

At the wake, his daughter Raissa told me through her tears that she was grateful for the time she could sit alone with him, hold his hand and tell him what a wonderful father he had been. “I could never have gotten away with that when he was well. It was a precious time to me.” In his weakness as in his strength, Joe Mulholland brought out the best in people.

May he rest in peace -- and may his spirit keep goading the rest of us.

Sally Cunneen, professor emeritus of English at Rockland Community College, Suffern, N.Y., is the author of In Search of Mary (Ballantine).

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002