Morris Cerullo

Obituary: Morris Cerullo — 1931-2020: Famed televangelist opened Bible-themed attraction in San Diego

Pentecostal preacher ran worldwide ministry for more than 70 years, but also faced controversy

JULY 13, 2020
6:10 PM

Morris Cerullo, the famed and sometimes controversial televangelist who opened a $200 million Bible-themed attraction in Mission Valley last December, passed away on Friday in a San Diego hospital after a brief bout with pneumonia. He was 88.

In December, the Rancho Santa Fe resident told The San Diego Union-Tribune that he hoped that his massive new Morris Cerullo Legacy International Center would reflect his lifetime of service, both to his faith and to the millions of people he ministered to throughout his life.

“I’m 88 years of age, and my time on this Earth may not be very long,” Cerullo said. “I wanted to leave something that would be of value and speak to the principles I’ve upheld for the past 70 years. All I can tell you is that everybody is welcome at the Legacy Center. We can’t draw any lines of demarcation. It’s like saying Jesus didn’t die for the Muslims. He died for the world. Our job is to love everybody and to love them sincerely but not hypocritically.”

The show fountain at the Legacy International Center in Mission Valley.

The show fountain at the Legacy International Center in Mission Valley on Dec. 4, 2019 in San Diego, California.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Tributes to Cerullo — who ran ministry programs in more than 150 nations on six continents — have poured in from Christian leaders around the world.

Israeli televangelist Benny Hinn wrote that he couldn’t imagine his life without the time he spent with Cerullo, whose nickname among friends and followers was “Papa.”

“I’ve never met anyone who was more on fire for the cause of Christ,” Hinn wrote. “The intensity of the flames that burned in his heart for the lost was contagious, and I never walked away from spending time with him without my life changed forever.”

On Twitter, founding Bishop Mike Okonkwo of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission in Nigeria wrote that Cerullo was a “good soldier of Christ.”

“You fought a good fight, finished your course and kept the faith,” Okonkwo tweeted. “Our consolation is that you lived an impactful life, raising men across the globe for Jesus.”

Cerullo also faced controversy during his long career.

His miracle-healing crusades were the subject of negative news coverage and public uproar in the United Kingdom, India and Brazil. He also faced tax-evasion charges for under-representing his income from 1998 to 2000, but the 2007 California case against him was dismissed due to improperly administered jury instructions.

Members of the LGBTQ community also criticized him for anti-gay preaching. In December, Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, immediate past president of the LGBT organization San Diego Democrats for Equality, said the Legacy International Center should not overlook that part of Cerullo’s past.

“This is a legacy project to honor Dr. Cerullo’s history, and that history is tainted by the fact that his ministry has promoted gay conversion therapy, which is illegal in California and is dangerous and harmful,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said. “It will be up to the owners and operators of this complex to demonstrate that they are inclusive of the LGBT community, and if they demonstrate that, I’m sure it will be a welcome addition to the community.”

Jim Penner, executive director of the Legacy Center Foundation at Morris Cerullo World Evangalism, said on Monday that it meant the world to Cerullo that he lived long enough to see the Legacy International Center open to the public.

“It was definitely a dream fulfilled,” Penner said. “He was extremely excited to see Legacy completed and people enjoying it.”

Despite Cerullo’s advanced age, Penner said he remained “active every hour of every day” in the ministry, which employs about 100 people at its offices in San Diego, London, Holland and Canada. In the aftermath of his death, Cerullo’s wife of 69 years, Theresa Cerullo, has taken on a leadership role in the ministry, which Penner said was organized many years ago to survive its founder by training ministers worldwide.

“So it’s multiple people in multiple nations carrying that mantle forward, not just one person sitting in San Diego,” he said.

Penner said Cerullo behind the scenes was very much the friendly, affectionate man known to television viewers worldwide.

“He smiled easily and he loved easily and he absolutely loved people,” Penner said. “It didn’t matter what your station in life or nationality, if he met you, he fell in love with you very quickly.”

Born in Passaic, N.J., Cerullo was orphaned at age 2, and he and his four siblings were placed at the Daughters of Miriam Jewish orphanage in Clifton, N.J. He lived there until age 15 and at some point found his Christian faith. At age 17, he received a scholarship to a Bible college in New York and by 23 he was running his first outreach crusade in Greece.

His profile expanded globally through his television program “Victory Today,” and he wrote more than 200 books and devotionals, according to an obituary published on his website.

Much of Cerullo’s work was spent building schools of ministry around the world. He also was involved in global humanitarian work. According to his ministry, he built multiple orphanages in Mexico and provided aid in Ethiopia. With his wife and partners Tommy and Matthew Barnett he built a floor of the Los Angeles Dream Center for housing up to 200 homeless individuals.

In 2011, Cerullo purchased 18 acres along Interstate 8 in Mission Valley for the Legacy International Center. Financed entirely with donations from the faithful and the sales of ministries overseas, the resort features a two-story headquarters building; a five-story, 126-room hotel and spa; a 4-D motion seat dome theater that plays religious films; biblical-style catacombs; art galleries; illuminated fountains; a re-creation of the Western Wall in Jerusalem; an interactive globe structure; and a marketplace of international shops.

Cerullo is survived by his wife, Theresa, their son, David, and daughter-in-law, Barbara; and daughter, Susan Peterson; seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Penner said memorial services have not been announced and would likely be impacted by social-distancing orders.

Staff writer Lori Weisberg contributed to this report.