CHARLESTON — Msgr. Joseph R. Roth marks an important milestone in his religious career this year.
Msgr. Roth, 67, pastor of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, celebrates his 25th year jubilee as a priest, but he said that the call to the priesthood is not one that he always felt.
“I began attending seminary at the age of 14, but when I was 17 I decided to join the Marist Brothers (of the Schools) and become a teacher instead,” he said.
While attending Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Msgr. Roth majored in history and religion. It was his decision to become a teacher that landed Msgr. Roth in positions in his home state of New York and eventually in Japan, where he stayed for 11 years.
“It was in Japan that I began doing priestly work and not just teaching,” he said. “It was then that I realized that the priesthood might be for me.”
But despite this newfound sense of mission, Msgr. Roth made the decision to leave the Marist Brothers and take a job as a layperson.
“I got a job with Met Life working with computers,” he said. “I must say that working in the business world took some getting used to. I saw things going on that I never dreamed of.”
It was this 18 months with Met Life that brought 39-year-old Msgr. Roth to South Carolina, and after spending a good deal of time with his spiritual director, Jesuit Father Thomas Gillian, that he answered the call to the priesthood.
“I would say that working as a businessman not only reinforced my desire to be a priest, but that it also helped me to understand my flock and the challenges that they face each day,” he said.
In the 25 years that Msgr. Roth has served in South Carolina, he has filled positions that extend beyond the realm of religious life. One of his more unique roles is that of assistant fire chief for the Sullivan’s Island Fire Department.
“Sullivan’s Island has a volunteer fire department, and after experiencing a house fire several years ago while residing on the island, I knew that there had to be something I could do,” he said.
Following that incident Msgr. Roth attended the South Carolina Fire Academy, and is now both a certified firefighter and instructor. He has been named Firefighter of the Year and has been awarded the Medal of Valor. He also penned the Firefighters Hymn, which is on display at the fire academy in Columbia.
“Father Roth is one of the guys, and he makes sure he knows everything he can about everything,” said Anthony Stith, chief of the Sullivan’s Island Fire Department. Stith says that Msgr. Roth’s training as a firefighter, EMT, and priest has equipped him to handle the medical and religious aspects of the job.
Stith recalled one incident in which an entire family drowned. He said that the tragedy really hit home for many of the firefighters, but that “having Father Roth around to talk to helped the guys get through a really tough time.”
“He is our chaplain, and he is our firefighter,” Stith said.
But his one true love remains the church, and he wears many hats in his service to it. He serves as the vicar general, as a full member of the Canon Law Society, and on several diocesan boards including finance, investment, and sexual abuse.
Msgr. Roth also hosts an annual pilgrimage to Rome for parishioners, and it was on one of these trips that he experienced what he considers to be the high point in his life as a priest.
“I was able to meet with the Holy Father, and I must say it was the thrill of a lifetime,” he said. “I realized that he is the Vicar of Christ on earth, and the fact that he would take the time out to speak to a priest from South Carolina was truly a thrill.”