'Caution, Blind Priest Driving' -- the life of Father Thomas Carroll

Father Thomas J. Carroll was born in Gloucester on Aug. 6, 1909. He was the fifth child in a family of eight, the only boy. He was educated in the Gloucester public schools until college, when he entered the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. Upon graduation, he entered St. John's Seminary and became a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston. He liked to joke that growing up in a household with seven sisters, he became a priest to get away from women. Later in life, he was asked by a Jesuit friend how come he had not joined the Jesuits. He responded that he did not want to be assigned to college teaching but rather wanted to be a pastor.

Much to his surprise upon ordination in 1938, he was assigned to be the assistant director of the Catholic Guild for the Blind, recently founded by Cardinal O'Connell in 1936. Father Carroll never uttered a word of disappointment that he was not assigned to a parish. Rather, he envisioned that blind people served as his parish. In the early days of his priesthood, he rented a room from the Sisters of the Cenacle on Lake Street near the seminary. In 1942, Cardinal O'Connell purchased an estate in Newton to create a retirement home for elderly blind women who were being refused entry in existing rest homes. The manor house was converted for use as a rest home and called St. Raphael's Hall. It was staffed and managed by the Sisters of St. Joseph, and Father Carroll was able to create an apartment for himself in the basement of the main building.

From 1938 to 1944, Father Carroll's main duties were to oversee and occasionally provide Christian Doctrine classes to the blind students enrolled at the Perkins Institute for the Blind. In addition, he celebrated Mass for the blind and deaf-blind residents in St. Raphael's Hall and saw to their spiritual welfare. In those early days, the guild functioned as a social welfare agency. They held fundraising drives for blind people who needed financial assistance, organized reading circles for the blind among the many parishes of the archdiocese, and organized volunteers to drive blind people to Mass and the reading circles.

In 1941, America declared war, and like many Catholic priests of that era, Father Carroll volunteered to serve. As it turned out, there were already many young otherwise healthy vets returning from Europe blinded by explosives. The U.S. Army wanted to get them back into the mainstream of life as quickly as possible and, for that reason, they opened Old Farms Convalescent Hospital in Avon, Connecticut. Searching for appropriate staff, they noted that Father Carroll was the associate director of the Catholic Guild for the Blind in Boston. Therefore, he was assigned to work with the blinded veterans at the hospital.

The young and enthusiastic staff in Avon began experimenting with new ideas in rehabilitation of the newly blinded adult. One of these was to adapt the long-cane, which had been utilized by St. Dunstan's in England for blinded veterans of World War I to a more modern approach. Independent travel achieved with the use of the long-cane became the hallmark of this approach to rehabilitation. Father Carroll was a quick convert to viewing services for the newly blinded adult as one that would enable the blind person to return to life within sighted society.

As the war ended, the Army decided to close Old Farms Convalescent Hospital in 1947 but to continue rehabilitation services in a new setting. Soon, Hines Rehabilitation Hospital in Hines, Illinois, was opened.

Many things were happening at once. In 1946, Father John Connelly, the director of the Catholic Guild for the Blind, was elevated to monsignor and assigned to a large parish in Framingham, St. Bernard's. Father Carroll was named as his successor. Immediately, Father Carroll asked Archbishop Cushing for permission to transform the Catholic Guild from a social welfare agency into a rehabilitation agency for newly blinded adults, providing for civilians who became blind the same care as the U.S. Army had provided to the veterans. Archbishop Cushing responded that he didn't see how he could finance such a rehabilitation program, but Father Carroll was welcome to the unoccupied stable on the property in Newton. Father Carroll supposedly responded that he would gladly accept because other important events in history have begun in a stable. Thus was born St. Paul's Rehabilitation Program for Newly Blinded Adults.

Father Carroll went on to make a success of his venture and in 1961 published a book "Blindness, What It Is, What It Does, and How to Live With It." In this book, he described the many ideas he learned while observing the Army's rehabilitation program in Connecticut and designed for himself a similar program in Newton. This book has become a foundational book for the training of personnel in the field of rehabilitation of the newly blinded adult. There are many other aspects of Father Carroll's life that are of interest; one was his passionate advocacy for the rights of African Americans. This led him to recruit 50 ministers, priests, and rabbis to accompany him to Montgomery, Alabama, to march with Dr. Martin Luther King to Selma. Father Carroll was struck down early in his life at the age of 60, four months short of his 61st birthday. He died at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Brighton.

A full biography of Father Carroll has been completed by Rachel Ethier Rosenbaum, the retired president of the Carroll Center for the Blind. Rachel guided the center for 33 years. In addition to her service for the center, she was a nun for over 10 years in a French order called the Daughters of Wisdom. The title of the biography is "Caution, Blind Priest Driving" and is available on Amazon. The title is taken from a joke played on Father Carroll by the blinded veterans. They attached a sign to his car when he was driving back to Boston: "This car is being driven by a blind priest." Though not blind himself, he was called the blind priest by the staff at the rehabilitation center because his purpose in being there was to support the blinded veterans.