Father Charles Strobel, founder of Room In The Inn, dies at 80

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Father Charles Frederick Strobel, founder of Room In The Inn and a leading advocate for the homeless in the city of Nashville, passed away in the early morning of Sunday, Aug. 6. He was 80.

“Today we received the sad news of the passing of Father Charles Strobel, a friend to so many in our community,” said Bishop J. Mark Spalding in a statement. “He was a man who was always mindful of those who lived on the margins, making it his life’s mission to put into action Christ’s words in the Gospel of Matthew to feed the hungry and to welcome the stranger.

“We pray for the repose of Father Strobel’s soul and the comfort and consolation of his family.”

A community gathering to celebrate Father Strobel’s life will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 11, at First Horizon Park, home of the Nashville Sounds baseball club, at 19 Junior Gilliam Way, in Nashville.

“While we were lucky to be Charles’ immediate family, Charles was a son of Nashville, and he considered everyone in the city his family,” Martin Strobel, nephew of Father Strobel, said on behalf of the family. “Charles was an ecumenical icon; one of only a handful of faith leaders who could bring the city together to better serve a critically underserved community. 

“Charles truly loved every person, most especially the lonely, poor and lost, the homeless, imprisoned and forgotten. Everyone was his family, no matter ethnicity, religion or background. He drew energy and love from everyone around him and would always say he received more than he gave,” the statement continued. “Charles asked that we ‘love one another’, that we ‘remember the poor’, and, above all else, ‘remember how good you are.’ Those are the teachings and memories we’ll all carry with us.

“Our family deeply appreciates the outpouring of prayers.”

Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced, but the family has noted that a public memorial will be forthcoming. 

A Nashville native

Father Strobel was born on March 12, 1943, one of four children born to Martin and Mary Catherine Schweiss Strobel.

A native of Nashville, he was baptized at Church of the Assumption on March 21, 1943, and attended Assumption School, graduating in 1957. Four years later, he graduated from Father Ryan High School in 1961.

Father Charles Strobel received the Joe Kraft Humanitarian Award in 2018 in recognition of his work for the homeless. “I promise you, you can make a difference,” Father Strobel told the crowd of nearly 750 people on hand to see him accept the award. Tennessee Register file photo by Rick Musacchio

He grew up on Seventh Avenue North between Madison and Monroe streets, a quiet, integrated block of Germantown that was anchored by the Church of the Assumption, where he received the Catholic sacraments and said his first Mass after being ordained. Assumption was as much a home to him when he was a child as his own home across the street, Father Strobel’s family recalled. Assumption’s pastor at the time, Father Dan Richardson, became a father figure to him after his own father died in 1947. Father Strobel said of the North Nashville of his youth, “It was a place where the poor worked for the poor, where the poor served the poor.” Due to his upbringing, he believed his model for a community that cares for everyone was real and could be replicated.

After high school, Father Strobel began studying for the priesthood. He attended St. Mary College in Lebanon, Kentucky, where he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. He earned a master’s degree in education from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a master’s degree in theology from The Theological College of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. While in Washington, he became immersed in the Civil Rights Movement. 

Father Strobel was ordained to the priesthood on Jan. 31, 1970, by Bishop Joseph Durick at the Cathedral.

His years in the seminary gave him two theological structures that shaped his work, Father Strobel said: The Sermon on the Mount, which opens with Jesus telling his followers, “Blessed are the poor,” and the Jewish concept of “Anawim,” a word that draws everyone together in common poverty and common humanity. He often referred to “Beatitude Moments,” which he described as “grace-filled occurrences in life that are examples to us of our faith lived out on a daily basis.”

After his ordination, Father Strobel was assigned associate pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a professor and guidance counselor at Knoxville Catholic High School. In 1975, he was transferred and assigned as associate pastor of Church of the Holy Rosary in Nashville, and diocesan moderator and Nashville deanery moderator of the Ladies of Charity.

Three years later, on June 17, 1977, he was assigned pastor of Holy Name Church in East Nashville. It was an assignment that would lead to his lasting legacy. 

Father Charles Strobel, second from right, then Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, far left, then Gov. Phil Bredesen, second from left, and Jim Fleming, then chair of the Room In The Inn Board help Christ Carr, cut the ribbon to the Comprehensive Center at the Room In The Inn on Eighth Avenue South in Nashville in September 2010. Carr was one of the residents in the apartments in the Comprehensive Center, which also houses classrooms, a kitchen, a dining area, laundry, message center, and other services for the homeless. Tennessee Register file photo by Andy Telli

Room In The Inn

Msgr. Owen Campion, former editor-in-chief of the Tennessee Register, who attended Father Ryan with Father Strobel and his siblings, said he and Father Strobel both became priests in an interesting time, the former being ordained in 1966. 

“Father Strobel and I came into the priesthood when the big things were endemic poverty, racism, warfare, militarism, capital punishment, and antisemitism,” recalled Msgr. Campion. “The Church’s first priority of those, however, was endemic poverty.” 

When Father Strobel was assigned pastor of Holy Name, he didn’t wait long before he decided to do something about it.

“There was a building by the church parking lot which had been an auto-mechanic shop. It came on the market and the parish bought it,” Msgr. Campion explained. “They started a soup kitchen for homeless people who could not find a place to get a meal. Then, Holy Name School, which had closed some years before, stood vacant.

“One bitterly cold night, he opened up the school for homeless people, so they could have a warm place to stay,” he said. “That was the beginning of Room In The Inn.”

After inviting the people into the school, Father Strobel made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for them, found enough blankets and pillows for everyone, and gave them use of bathrooms and hot showers. “I knew once they came through the doors that night, they would come back the next night and the night after that,” he later said. “I also knew I wanted them to come back.”

Photo from Room In The Inn Facebook Page

This initial act of kindness became the germ of Strobel’s larger idea: a city-wide program in which congregations across Nashville would welcome the homeless into their houses of worship and provide them food, shelter, and community.

In December 1986, “four congregations committed to sheltering people experiencing homelessness through March 1987. By the end of that winter, 31 congregations had joined,” according to the Room In The Inn website. “Now, we have nearly 200 congregations from a wide variety of traditions and over 7,000 volunteers who shelter almost 1,500 individuals from Nov. 1 through March 31 each season.

“In 1995, we opened our downtown campus, which offers emergency services, traditional programs, and long-term solutions to help people rebuild their lives,” the site continues. “The opening of a 45,000-square-foot facility in 2010 greatly enhanced our ability to support people through programs that emphasize health, education, employment, and housing. We do this work through building one-on-one relationships and offering hospitality to all who call the streets of Nashville home.”

Room In The Inn became a national model, and more than 30 Room In The Inn programs now operate across the country. 

Rachel Hester, current executive director of Room in the Inn, worked with Father Strobel at Room in the Inn for more than 30 years.

“The community of Room In The Inn has become our parish. Charlie always reminded us that we were all givers and receivers of God’s grace and there is good in all of us.” Hester said. “Charlie found that this was the mission field in a lot of ways.

“We have to identify and recommit to who our neighbors are and the gift that Charlie has given our city,” she said. “When he would welcome people in, he knew he wasn’t fixing homelessness, but if he got them something to eat and somewhere safe to sleep, then they could make better decisions tomorrow.”

Father Strobel’s will to keep going in his work in the early days of Room In The Inn was thanks to the values instilled in him and his siblings, by their mother, Mary Catherine Strobel, as he embraced the seven Corporal Works of Mercy in everything he did.

Opposing the death penalty even in tragedy

Father Strobel as a lifelong and vocal opponent of the death penalty, even after his mother’s kidnapping and murder, which shocked the city. The tragedy struck on Dec. 9, 1986, one week after Room in the Inn was officially launched.

When the man who murdered Mrs. Strobel was captured and confessed to killing her and five others in a string of robberies, Nashville prosecutors recommended the death penalty. With the support of his family, Father Strobel publicly pleaded for the man’s life to be spared. Ultimately, the man was given a life sentence with no chance of parole.

Twelve years later, in an interview with the Tennessee Register, Father Strobel, along with his three siblings – Alice Eadler, Jerry Strobel, and Veronica Strobel-Seigenthaler – talked about their decision to ask that the death penalty not be sought in the case against their mother’s killer.

“That was just the way we were raised,” Father Strobel said in the interview. “You don’t return evil for evil.”

Recalling the words he spoke at his mother’s funeral, Father Strobel told the Register, “‘Why speak of anger and revenge? Those words were not compatible with the very thought of our mother. So, I say to everyone, we are not angry or vengeful, just deeply hurt. … We know the answers are not easy and clear, but we still believe in the miracle of forgiveness. And we extend our arms in that embrace.’”

“The statement about forgiveness really brought closure to a traumatic, painful situation,” Father Strobel said in the interview. “We could now begin to take the small steps daily to go on with our life.”

Msgr. Campion recalled the dark time in the Strobel family as a close friend.

“Mrs. Strobel really reared the family,” Msgr. Campion said, noting the early death of Father Strobel’s father. “She was a very, very gentle, kind, loving person, and so it was very tragic the way she died.”

“While the Church teaches the moral wrongs against capital punishment, many don’t take it seriously. I don’t know how many sermons are ever preached on it for fear of annoying people or because they don’t want to hear it, or they don’t agree with it,” he added. “The Strobel children took it seriously and set an example of forgiveness.”

A proponent of ecumenism

Throughout his life, Father Strobel was a proponent of ecumenism, reaching across the boundaries between denominations and faith to gather people for a common cause.

While living in Knoxville, he opened the city’s office of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

“At the time, ecumenism was a major initiative of the Catholic Church. Father Strobel was much involved in that,” Msgr. Campion recalled. “He was comfortable working with persons of other religions, and he had great respect for their beliefs. It meant that he was able to draw Nashvillians of all backgrounds into the work of Room In The Inn.” 

Father Strobel received many accolades during his life, including the Human Relations Award from the National Conference of Christian and Jews, in 1989; the Public Citizen of the Year from the Tennessee Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, Inc., in 1988; Catholic Charities, Diocese of Nashville Annual Service Award in 2002; the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Nashville Chapter of the ACLU in 2012; the Joe Kraft Humanitarian Award in 2018; the Operation Andrew Annual Joe & Honey Rodgers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019; AgeWell Middle Tennessee’s Sage Award in 2021; and the Father Ryan Legacy Award in 2021. In 2004, The Nashville Scene named him Nashvillian of the Year; in 2005, he was one of 10 people designated Tennessean of the Year by The Tennessean.

Father Strobel also received an honorary doctorate in divinity from MacMurray College. 

Father Strobel’s devotion to baseball was second only to his devotion to serving the poor, his family recalled. He became captivated by the game as a young boy and spent every spare moment during the season either at the old Sulphur Dell ballpark in North Nashville, home to the double-A Nashville Vols, or glued to the Motorola radio in his childhood home following every play. 

Later in life, he was a regular at Nashville Sounds and Vanderbilt games and traveled the country visiting major-league parks. He also was a formidable player and participated in competitive leagues well into his 70s. Strobel was known for shedding his easy-going persona as soon as he put on a uniform. “I’ll play any position that gets me on the field,” he would say.

Remembering Father Strobel

Father Strobel was preceded in death by his parents, Martin and Mary Catherine Schweiss Strobel; his sister and brother-in-law Veronica Strobel-Seigenthaler and Thomas Seigenthaler; his sister-in-law Patricia Holzapfel Strobel; and his great-niece Mary Catherine Strobel Hayes.

He is survived by his brother Jerome Strobel, his sister Alice Strobel Eadler, and his brother-in-law Robert Eadler; his nieces and nephews Katie Seigenthaler, Beth Seigenthaler Courtney, Amy Seigenthaler Pierce, Amelia Strobel, Martin Strobel, Maria Seigenthaler, Merrill Strobel Bohren, Daniel Strobel, Margaret Strobel Pyburn, Morgan Strobel, Charlie Eadler and Katie Eadler; many great-nieces and great-nephews; legions of friends; the staff of Room In The Inn; and everyone Room In The Inn serves.

A community celebration of Charles Strobel’s life is being planned and will be announced shortly.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Charles Strobel Housing Fund, which is dedicated to expanding Room In The Inn’s Campus for Human Development to provide additional community and wellness space for critical wrap-around services; and accessible, affordable housing for individuals experiencing homelessness.

Msgr. Campion noted several key things he would remember about his lifelong friend. First was the way Father Strobel spoke about his scripture classes at The Catholic University of America.

“He really did take all that very much to heart, particularly the lessons of helping the poor and the needy,” Msgr. Campion said. “He had a personality about him that enabled him to work in various projects and to gather people around him.

“He is indeed the best-known Catholic in Nashville,” he reiterated. “There’s no question about it.”

Hester said Father Strobel gave all the gift of being able to be “radical where we are.”

“It’s all radical because it’s love, and he’s changed and created an informed citizenry in our city of Nashville about having a face-to-face interaction with those experiencing homelessness,” Hester said. “He took us along a journey. While he may have been the leader for many, many years, he walked alongside us.

“It wasn’t a ‘him’; it was ‘them’ and the ‘them’ was ‘us.’ That’s a unique thing. I don’t know that every leader has that capability of allowing us all to be part of that ministry in the same way,” she continued. “He was a teacher at heart, and he believed every moment was for human development. … It’s about seeing God’s love in your life.”

As the death of Father Strobel is mourned by many, his words to the Tennessee Register to anyone who has experienced loss seems to be the advice he’d want all to take to heart.

“I would appeal to them to trust the love of their God that is so great to help them get through this.”

A community gathering

Father Charles Strobel, the founder of Room In The Inn and an advocate for the homeless who died on Sunday, Aug. 6, was memorialized during a community gathering on Friday, Aug. 11. The gathering was held at First Horizon Park, the home of the Nashville Sounds minor league baseball team, in honor of Father Strobel’s lifelong love of the game.

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