SAN DIEGO — When Jesuit Father Gil Gentile told her that he would be leaving Father Joe’s Villages after three decades with the organization, Ruth Bruland said she gasped.
Bruland, the organization’s chief program officer, acknowledges that Father Joe’s Villages has been blessed with many wonderful staff members and volunteers over the years. But there’s just something special about Father Gentile.
His departure, she said, leaves such a hole that “it’s really hard to see how every nook and cranny of it could be filled.”
Father Gentile, who returned to his native New York in late August at the request of his provincial superior, had been associated with Father Joe’s Villages since the late 1980s, when it was still known as the St. Vincent de Paul Center and had not yet become independent from the Diocese of San Diego.
The Jesuit’s relationship with the organization that would become San Diego’s largest homeless services provider had an inauspicious beginning.
Father Gentile came to San Diego in 1988 to pursue a master’s degree in social work at San Diego State University. When informed that his field placement would be with the St. Vincent de Paul Center, he wondered if he could get a different assignment. He had experience with homeless ministry dating back about 20 years to when he first entered the Jesuits, and he assumed that the center would have little to teach him.
As it turned out, he was wrong.
“Much to my delight, there [were] all kinds of things to learn,” recalled Father Gentile, now 73.
After his first year as an unpaid social work intern, he requested to stay on for another year, during which he got involved with the organization’s nascent mental health department.
After earning his Master of Social Work degree in 1990, he accepted a full-time job with the mental health department. He later earned his social work license in 1994.
With the exception of a two-year period, from 2013-2015, when his Jesuit superior called him back to New York for a parish assignment in Staten Island, he continued to work at Father Joe’s Villages until his recent return to New York.
“He just fell in love with the place and I think it’s fair to say that the place also fell in love with him,” said Bruland, who has been with Father Joe’s Villages for 22 years.
At Father Joe’s Villages, Father Gentile provided both individual and group therapy. He started and led various groups, including anger management, grief support, and parenting classes. He also supervised many social work students who, just as he had been in the late 1980s, were assigned to Father Joe’s Villages while they earned their degrees or licenses.
Paul Delessio, a social worker at Father Joe’s Villages, wouldn’t be where he is today had it not been for Father Gentile.
Delessio had been doing a lot of managerial work, knew that he wanted “something more,” but wasn’t exactly sure what that something was. He began talking to Father Gentile about going back to school to earn a master’s in social work and, after deciding to do so, found himself working under Father Gentile’s supervision.
Describing the priest as “such a hero,” both to clients and fellow social workers, Delessio praised him as a tireless worker who never sought recognition for himself but always seemed able to instill happiness and hope in others.
“When you met with Father Gil, everything became alright,” he said.
In addition to his work as a therapist, Father Gentile assisted the chaplain at Father Joe’s Villages by celebrating Masses in the Joan Kroc Center’s chapel and meeting with anyone who needed to talk to a priest.
Father Gentile also put one of his other passions — cooking — to use to benefit the organ-ization. At the Annual Children’s Charity Gala, which raises funds for Father Joe’s Villages’ work with homeless children, a homemade Italian dinner cooked by Father Gentile was often one of the live auction items.
Father Gentile, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1978, was involved in a host of other ministries during his years in San Diego. He has been associated with Casa de Los Pobres, an urban relief center in Tijuana operated by the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Queen of Peace, whose mission is to provide for the poor by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick. He has also served as a chaplain for Nativity Prep Academy, the Ignatian Volunteer Corps and the San Diego Catholic Worker, and as a spiritual director for seminarians at St. Francis de Sales House of Priestly Formation.
Father Gentile said it was “always a squeeze” trying to fit these various ministries into his schedule along with his full-time work for Father Joe’s Villages. So, for the past five years, he cut down his hours at Father Joe’s Villages to part-time.
His provincial superior’s request that he return to New York came as a surprise, he said. Though he had always intended to return eventually and to retire there someday, he hadn’t expected to do it so soon. He is currently on a “mini-sabbatical,” living and working at a parish in Westchester County, New York, until he receives his next assignment.
Despite relocating to the East Coast, Father Gentile’s connection with Father Joe’s Villages might not be completely ended. He expects that he will be returning to San Diego from time to time to lead Cursillo weekends and, while he is in town, would like to celebrate Masses at Father Joe’s Villages. It might even be possible for him to continue auctioning off an Italian dinner at the annual gala.
“Will we have another Father Gil?” Bruland asked rhetorically. “I don’t know. God might have broken the mold when He gave us Father Gil.”