Founder of Poverello Dies: Father Bill Collins remembered as saint, never-ending source of compassion

Father Bill Collins probably won’t be officially canonized as a saint by the Vatican. Unofficially, Collins was canonized long ago by those who knew and loved him.

“He was a saint, an innovator, a man of true compassion and feeling,” said longtime friend Terry DeCarlo. DeCarlo met Collins when he worked at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of South Florida, now known as The Pride Center.

“He’s a man who would sit with you, laugh with you, cry with you, sit there and hold your hand. He would sit there and counsel you if you were going through something, even if you didn’t ask. He could see it in your face and see it in your words. He was a man who just was out there and wanted to help,” DeCarlo said.

Collins, 86, a Franciscan priest who founded Poverello 30 years ago, died in hospice on May 10.

He leaves behind family, friends, and a legacy – an organization with 218 volunteers which feeds thousands of people each year, operates its own gym and revenue-generating thrift store, and provides chiropractic, acupuncture, reiki, massage services, and haircuts.

Started from the back of Collins’ car, the organization moved from Pompano Beach in 1992 to the Shoppes of Wilton Manors. In 2011, the organization moved to its current location on Dixie Highway. Originally, the mission of Poverello was to help those with HIV/AIDS but its spectrum has widened over the years.

Collins began ministering to people living with the virus in 1985 after he was appointed chaplain at Imperial Point Hospital. According to a 2007 Sun Sentinel article, Collins cashed in his $19,000 pension and began delivering food to those same people shortly before founding Poverello, which means “poor little one” in Italian. “I can’t think of anything that fulfills my vocation as a Franciscan better than helping others,” Collins told the Sun Sentinel.

“He did what he did out of the goodness of his heart,” DeCarlo said. “He didn’t do it for press or to say ‘come look at me.’ 90 percent of his body was heart. He just made it happen. That’s the mark of a true compassionate individual. They don’t look for the recognition and he never did. He dedicated his life. That’s a true saint in my eyes. He was an amazing, amazing man and helped so many people throughout the years. I wish my life or my tombstone would read as much as his.”

Thomas Pietrogallo, Poverello’s chief operations officer, took over for Collins about a year ago because of his declining health. Pietrogallo said that Collins’ health kept him from spending a lot of time at Poverello recently.

But he never really left.

“He engendered the whole philosophy that we have. We put love into those groceries [we give to people],” Pietrogallo said. Poverello’s 218 volunteers, added Pietrogallo, are there because of Collins.

“That’s an important legacy of giving . . . a reflection of his work and who he recruited along the way.” Without those volunteers, Pietrogallo said 19 full time staff members would be needed to do the equivalent amount of work. “If we had to pay 19 additional people, we wouldn’t be able to make this work.”

At one of their last meetings, Pietrogallo said Collins was just as humble as he has always been and deflected the credit for Poverello’s success from himself onto the volunteers and staff.

“I thanked him [for starting Poverello] and he said ‘all I did was have a good idea.’ I thought that was a really humble and beautiful way of characterizing his role around here.”

Information on funeral services for Collins were not available at press time. SFGN will provide them when they become available.