Bishop Francis A. Quinn, a widely beloved community leader who exerted moral authority with a gentle touch as the spiritual head of Catholics in the Sacramento region, died Thursday. At 97 years old, he was the oldest living bishop in the United States at the time of his death.
Quinn served from 1980 to 1994 as bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, which covers 42,000 square miles in 20 counties. He led a growing flock in Northern California, including seven new parishes, two elementary schools and one high school that opened under his leadership.
He encouraged lay Catholics – especially women – to take active roles in church governance and ministries. He supported ordination of deacons to help alleviate the shrinking ranks of priests.
But his influence extended beyond Catholics. People in all walks of life respected his moral leadership and responded to his genial, soft-spoken manner.
“As he approached the divine threshold, Bishop Quinn’s heart resonated with the words of Paul to the Philippians: ‘It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus,’” Bishop Jaime Soto said in a statement released by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento. “Bishop Quinn was also dearly possessed by the many who admired and loved him, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He was always accompanied by friends and family throughout his long stay at Mercy McMahon (an assisted-living residence where he was living). I am grateful to all those who were his companions during the final part of his sojourn. Let us continue to accompany him with our prayers. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. May perpetual light shine upon him.”
A tall, thin man with white hair, Quinn blended in easily outside the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in black slacks, a polo-style shirt and Reeboks. Unpretentious even in his ceremonial robes and miter, he greeted worshipers after Mass with a sly grin, disarming sense of humor and keen memory for names
His humility also helped strengthen ecumenical relationships. Leaders of other religions welcomed his efforts to promote interfaith dialogue, and he was a frequent speaker at non-Catholic services.
Quinn inspired faith through action. He went out of his way to minister to people on the margins of society, including death-row inmates and AIDS patients. He distributed groceries at food closets and washed dishes in soup kitchens. He roamed K Street Mall at night, slipping $20 bills to homeless people.
An advocate for social justice, he spoke out against human rights violations, nuclear arms and U.S. military intervention in Central America. He publicly criticized local officials for raids on homeless campers, and he led prayers for immigrants outside the federal courthouse.
But he adroitly avoided conflict with Catholic Church officials on sensitive issues. He opposed abortion while disapproving of hardball anti-abortion tactics outside clinics. He pledged obedience to celibacy as a “man-made law ... not scriptural,” and he openly speculated that women might one day be allowed as priests.
Some Catholics thought Quinn was too liberal because he allowed girls to be altar servers and voiced steadfast support for gay Catholics. Others grumbled that he did not pay enough attention to business details of running a diocese.
He came under heavy criticism for not responding aggressively to allegations of sexual abuse by priests. He was forced to testify in court after three women filed a 1991 lawsuit accusing a Glenn County priest of seducing them. Although the Sacramento Diocese was cleared of liability, the trial revealed allegations of sexual misconduct by other priests under his leadership as bishop.
In a 2010 interview with The Sacramento Bee, Quinn expressed regret for not moving quickly to protect children from harm.
“I was stupid and ignorant and take full responsibility,” he said. “We thought we were doing the doing the right thing, but we focused too much on the needs of the institution and not enough on the needs of the minor.”
After retiring as bishop in 1994, Quinn left California for a new mission in the harsh Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Living in a a donated, 24-foot motorhome, he traveled a dusty circuit of impoverished towns saying Mass, performing baptisms and serving the spiritual needs of American Indians on the sprawling Yaqui and Tohono O’odham reservations.
He returned to Sacramento in 2007 and moved to Mercy McMahon Terrace, an assisted-living residence. Until recently, he kept a busy schedule saying Mass for residents, speaking to Catholic groups and visiting Quinn Cottages, a transitional housing center for homeless people that was named in his honor.
Francis Anthony Quinn was born Sept. 11, 1921, in Los Angeles. He was the younger of two sons raised by Anne and Frank Quinn, a leather factory worker. His was 5 when his father died of appendicitis, and he moved to Napa with his brother and mother, who worked in a shirt factory.
Inspired to be a priest as an altar boy, he graduated from St. Joseph’s College and St. Patrick’s Seminary in the Bay Area and was ordained in 1946. He earned a master’s degree at Catholic University of America in Washington and a doctorate in education at UC Berkeley.
He served in the Bay Area as a Catholic school teacher and administrator, newspaper editor and parish priest until 1978, when he was named auxiliary bishop of the San Francisco Archdiocese. In 1979, Pope John Paul II appointed him the seventh bishop of the Sacramento Diocese.
Quinn’s lifestyle as bishop was modest. He disdained a big, expensive car in favor of an economical Ford Escort. He earned the nickname “basement bishop” for selling the bishop’s mansion and moving into a Spartan apartment beneath the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
“We were a poor family, and I grew up with natural humility,” he said in an 2012 interview. “My model was my patron saint, St. Francis. It was my nature to be humble.”