Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, one of the largest nonprofits in Minnesota, has a new CEO and its first person of color in the job in its 150-year history.

Michael Goar, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities, will start Jan. 4, Catholic Charities announced Tuesday. He steps into the new role as the social services nonprofit responds to growing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I'm glad I'm breaking a barrier," he said of being the first person of color to head Catholic Charities, referring to the election last week of Kamala Harris, the first vice president who is a woman and person of color. "I feel like that is my calling — to help people in our community."

Goar, who is African American and Korean, was adopted from an orphanage in South Korea by a Minneapolis couple, arriving in Minnesota at age 12 unable to speak English. He went on to graduate from Washburn High School and Minnesota State University, Mankato.

"I have personal experience of what it means to be homeless and what it means to be hungry," he said. "As a man of color and with the current environment and also my lived experience, I obviously bring a different lens to the table."

Goar has led Big Brothers Big Sisters since 2016, after serving as interim superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools. He also was executive director of Generation Next, a Twin Cities-based youth development organization, and previously was a school district administrator in Memphis and Boston.

"Just the fact that he has direct experience living in poverty ... I think it matters both from a symbolic perspective but also from an ability to connect through his story with our client population," said Kathleen Erickson DiGiorno, chair of the nonprofit's board of directors. "Having leaders of diversity in important community organizations is an important goal. ... We had a diverse candidate pool, and Michael rose to the top because of his overall skill set."

Goar succeeds Tim Marx, who is stepping down after nearly 10 years. Marx, a former housing commissioner and deputy mayor in St. Paul, will become Catholic Charities' first president emeritus, working on projects during the leadership transition.

Marx led Catholic Charities as it grew and evolved, adding emergency shelter beds and housing units with Higher Ground in Minneapolis in 2012 and Higher Ground St. Paul in 2017.

He wrapped up in 2019 with the $100 million Dorothy Day Place in St. Paul, which has affordable apartments and is the largest public-private partnership of its kind in state history.

Catholic Charities is also buying Augustana Health Care Center in Minneapolis to convert by 2022 into housing for veterans and others who are chronically homeless in a $65 million project.

Under his leadership, Catholic Charities has also narrowed its focus, ending refugee resettlement and adoption programs and announcing this year the closure of St. Joseph's Home for Children, the former Minneapolis orphanage.

Now, Goar will take the helm at a challenging time for nonprofits confronting financial strain during the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Marx said earlier this year that Catholic Charities was spending $1 million more a month on extra food, cleanings and staff overtime, dipping into reserves to cover a $5 million deficit for its fiscal year that ended June 30.

With 600 employees, Catholic Charities was too large to qualify for federal corona­virus aid that smaller nonprofits received.

"Vulnerable communities I think have been impacted so deeply by the pandemic, by the racial unrest caused by the George Floyd murder," Erickson DiGiorno said. "I think it really is a pivotal time. ... I'm also hoping that he and Catholic Charities can help be a voice in the community to contribute in a positive way to issues of systematic racism."

The board, which unanimously approved the decision to select Goar, hasn't released his salary publicly, but according to public data, Marx was paid $303,637 a year as CEO.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141