The Rev. Bernard J. Boff, a Roman Catholic priest whose ministry extended from central Toledo to a diocesan mission in Zimbabwe, died Thursday in the Ursuline Center, where he’d lived since 2007. He was 81.
He had Parkinson’s disease.
As a young priest, in 1965, he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Ala., in support of voting rights. He was pastor of the former St. Teresa parish from 1970-87 and was a founder of the Central City Ministry in the Toledo diocese.
“He wanted the poor to have the rights and the freedom to speak and be recognized,” said Msgr. William Kubacki, diocesan vicar for priests. “He really wanted to be able to provide housing, food, and a faith-based opportunity for people living in the central city and, in that way, he really was a true missionary both at home and abroad.”
Father Boff, as the director of global concerns for the diocese from 1987-2001, oversaw the diocesan mission of accompaniment to the BaTonga people in the Hwange diocese of Zimbabwe. He traveled there six times and was co-author of a book about the mission.
Standing 6-feet, 4-inches, he made an impression as he stopped at every parish in the 19-county diocese to speak about the Zimbabwean mission.
“He was bigger than life, a robust man,” his niece Mary Rose said. “When he spoke, he walked into the aisle and was animated. He would grab your attention.”
He grew his trademark beard in 1968 after taking part in Resurrection City, the Washington encampment that was part of the Poor People’s Campaign planned by the Reverend King and carried out after the civil rights leader’s assassination.
He was the first Catholic priest to be president of the ecumenical Toledo Area Council of Churches and was the first Catholic member of the Toledo Metropolitan Mission. He formerly led the Bible Center on Franklin Street and helped found Claver House on Dorr Street, which fed all comers without question.
“We don’t preach at people, but we’ve seen their lives change, just through our presence, service, respect for people,” Father Boff told The Blade in 1998. “We don’t throw people out ... It’s a place where people can go and be reverenced.”
He was active in the Catholic Interracial Council of Toledo and the local branch of the NAACP.
Father Boff lived what he preached, said Sister Nancy Mathias, an Ursuline, who was principal of St. Teresa School when he was parish pastor.
“He reached out to others,” Sister Nancy said. “That was driven by his great love for the Scriptures and what Christ asks all of us to do. He really heard that message.”
He was born March 29, 1932, in Defiance to Hazel and Carl Boff and was a graduate of Defiance High School, where he played basketball.
He studied economics and had a bachelor’s degree from St. Joseph College, Rensselaer, Ind., where he was on a championship basketball team.
He had a master’s degree from Northwestern University. He pursued the priesthood after a period of prayer, his niece said, and completed seminary studies at St. Mary College in Kentucky and St. Mary Seminary in Cincinnati.
He was ordained Aug. 21, 1961, at his home church, St. John in Defiance. He was associate pastor of St. Patrick of Heatherdowns Church and the former St. Ann Church before becoming pastor of St. Teresa.
He was chaplain for the Ursuline sisters from 1987-99 and pastor of St. Jude Church from 1999-2003. He wrote a column, “Praying the Word,” for the Catholic Chronicle.
Golf and fishing were favorite pastimes. He was close to his four nieces and two nephews, and family gatherings featured card games, laughter, and the Boff secret-recipe vanilla ice cream, his niece Mary said.
There are no immediate survivors.
The body will be in Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral after 4 p.m. Monday, where visitation is to continue until 8 p.m. and from 9:30-10:45 a.m. Tuesday. Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday in the cathedral. Arrangements are by the Coyle Funeral Home.
Tributes are suggested to the Ursuline Sisters; the priests’ retirement fund, or Central City Ministry of Toledo.
Contact Mark Zaborney at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6182.