By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
There was a time that Rev. Joe Carlos traded in his Franciscan robe for a Navy uniform.
The pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church was in the U.S. Navy for 15 years. But he didn’t join the Navy before he became a priest. He signed up to be a chaplain to help sailors and Marines 27 years ago.
“There was a really big need then for priests in the Navy. And today it’s even bigger. You have ships going out for months without a priest aboard,” he explained.
Father Joe was one of four children in his family growing up in Joliet. He decided early on that he wanted to be a priest.
He attended St. Joseph Seminary at Westmont for religious studies, where he first met Father Ken Rosswog, one of the clergy at St. Francis of Assisi Parish and an instructor at the time at St. Joseph. He also got used to more roommates compared to his days at home in Joliet.
“We had 98 in one dormitory,” he said.
Ordained in 1975, Father Joe would serve in St. Louis for five years. He also served at St. Rose Church in Montrose and for six years at St. Francis in Teutopolis. He would later go to Quincy.
Then in 1990 he decided to become a Navy chaplain. Before he could get his sea legs, he had to perfect his marching, saluting and other military protocol, as well as physical training. Military chaplains are ranked as officers so they go through basic training.
“I went to Newport, Rhode Island, for basics offered to chaplains. I was afraid to go to basic training. I was 42 years old then. Most men my age back then were getting out of the military, not coming in,” Carlos said.
He learned that fitness training was not overwhelming. He also soon mastered saluting, recognizing ranks on uniforms of different officers and other parts of the Navy culture.
“Part of that culture is all the acronyms they use, and the names for different things. A rack is your bunk or bed. And, yes, a floor is a deck. And they show you how to get your gear cleaned for inspection, too. In the Navy, you use Q-tips to get down in tight spaces,” he said.
Marine Gunny Sergeants were the instructors for the chaplains. Carlos believes that might have been difficult for some of the Gunnies only used to ordering seamen around with caustic adjectives or verbs.
“These sergeants are not used to telling officers what to do. I’m sure some Gunnies had to get used to training chaplains,” the priest recalled.
With the prospect of going to sea, the chaplains had to know how to react during at-sea emergencies, especially when a compartment was taking in seawater. That placed Carlos aboard the U.S.S. Buttercup, a training area for understanding a sailor’s duties during an emergency.
“We were assigned to patch a hole in the hull. We didn’t do well. I can remember a voice coming over the loudspeaker ‘You’re all dead!’”
One thing Carlos learned quickly was how the military clergy are not divided by denominations.
“You are working with other denominations there. It is an institutional ministry. It is a different ballgame,” he said.
After completing his training and receiving his two gold officer bands as a Navy lieutenant, Carlos was headed to his assignment in California. He hoped it would be on an aircraft carrier in San Diego. Instead, he ended up at 29 Palms, a Marine post near Palm Springs. He wouldn’t have to worry about getting seasick.
“I remember coming off the road and when I cleared the hill, I looked down and just saw the base surrounded by desert,” he recalled.
But the landscape had its unique twists like the Joshua Trees with their flowers forming on the twisted trunks and branches. Even that barren wilderness had its wonders. Yet, when his relatives came to visit they were shocked by the landscape around 29 Palms.
“My sister told me, ‘Joe, this is so desolate.’ Some people asked how I made someone mad to get assigned there,” he said.
But as a priest, he was needed. There were young Marines there and they needed spiritual guidance.
“They would get into stuff. Don’t get me wrong. They were good people. But they would get into situations not like most young people. In the Marines, there is a philosophy about never leaving a Marine behind in battle. But at that base, the Marines had to guard their clothing in the dryer.”
Marines were coming back from the Gulf War. They had just been in harm’s way. But at 29 Palms, they faced death as well.
“Some were killed in car accidents coming back to the base after a night of drinking. They had survived the bombs and everything else and then died at home that way,” said Carlos.
Later, he would serve in Somalia at Mogadishu as part of the relief effort there before gun battles broke out between Somalian fighters and American troops in 1993.
“I was part of the community relations effort that helped with the distribution of food and clothing to people there. I met a Muslim wearing what looked like a Rosary with wooden beads. I soon realized it honored Allah. So I said to him, ‘You believe in God and I believe in God.’ He then saw my Rosary with a cross attached and said, ‘You Christian, that not good!’ I thought here we were trying to help his people and he didn’t appreciate it.”
He did see some peaceful moments during his time in Somalia, though.
“They made some playground equipment from some old weapons,” he said.
It was at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba that Carlos felt satisfied with the good he was doing with civilians in need. He was assigned to help with more than 50,000 refugees from Cuba and Haiti as they sought asylum to the United States. He celebrated Mass with them and worked to fulfill their many needs.
“For me, I wasn’t a military chaplain there. I was like a missionary with them,” he said.
During his military career, he worked to save the lives of sailors or Marines. When they indicated to him they were considering suicide, he worked to see they received medical help. He never accepted the ramrod straight denial of suicide of one Marine officer after an enlisted man committed suicide in Somalia.
“I asked that major if he was going to the funeral and he said, ‘No way! Marines don’t commit suicide.’”
Though he might have violated some confidences, he takes pride in the fact his efforts saved some lives off the battlefield.
Later in his 15-year military career, Father Joe got to serve on a warship at sea. It was the Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship with choppers, assault aircraft, landing craft and a large contingent of Marines. It was commanded by Captain Pete Masciangelo, a dynamic individual who used the priest to understand the feelings of his crew to maintain morale aboard ship,.
“The captains and his commanders wanted to know what the sailors were saying. I offered some advice and sometimes the captain would follow it,” Carlos said.
When Masciangelo left after three years as commanding officer, there were some tough-as-nails petty officers tearing up.
“He told me after he spoke to the crew that the night before he was on the bridge crying. He never made admiral but he was a heck of a captain. When the ship would pull into Norfolk he wouldn’t go out and play golf. He would go out on his own boat for relaxation.”
After leaving the Navy as a Lt. Commander, Carlos came back to Illinois and took command of the “U.S.S. Bishop Creek” or better known as St. Aloysius Catholic Church. That was in January 2006. He was there for 10 years and now has been pastor at St. Francis since last year.
What he learned as a Navy chaplain has helped him as a priest in civilian life.
“It made me more dependent on God. I tried to see God’s role in my duties,” Carlos said.
When he had the opportunity to celebrate Mass aboard a submarine, he noted the wonder of God’s work as he spoke to the officers and crew.
“We were heading out and submerged to 300 feet. At one point, I stopped in the Mass and told everyone how God’s presence is with us even at 300 feet under the ocean,” Carlos recalled.
It is one of the moments of divine inspiration that a priest can’t forget.