Funeral Mass for Father John Grace is Thursday, May 9

Bishop Jaime Soto will preside at a funeral Mass for Father John Grace, pastor emeritus of St. Theresa Parish in South Lake Tahoe, on Thursday, May 9 at 11 a.m. in St. Theresa Church, 1041 Lyons Ave. in South Lake Tahoe.

A private memorial Mass for Father Grace, with Bishop Emeritus William K. Weigand presiding, will be held on Friday, May 10 at 10:30 a.m. at Calvary Funeral Center chapel at 7101 Verner Ave. in Citrus Heights. The homilist will be Father Michael Cormack. Burial will follow in Calvary Cemetery.

A vigil and rosary will be held on Wednesday, May 8 in St. Theresa Church. Viewing at 4 p.m. will be followed by the rosary at 6 p.m. and the vigil service at 7 p.m.

Father Grace, who served as a priest of the diocese for nearly 71 years, died on May 4. He was 98. He was the most senior priest of the diocese and retired from active ministry on May 1, 1993, after serving as pastor of St. Theresa Parish for 37 years. He had been residing since his retirement in South Lake Tahoe.

A native of County Tipperary, Ireland, he attended the Common School where his parents, John and Cecilia Grace, were teachers. Since the nearest high school was in Thurles, his parents decided to send him to the Cistercian College at Rosecrea as a boarding student for his secondary education.

After graduating from secondary school, he entered St. Patrick’s Seminary in Thurles, County Tipperary, in 1942, where he studied philosophy and theology for the next six years.

In 1946, Father (later Msgr.) Thomas Kirby, an Irish-born priest of the Diocese of Sacramento, came to Thurles looking for seminarians to serve the diocese. It was at that time that Father Grace and the late Father Richard Doheny, both seminarians, signed up for service in the diocese.

Father Grace, together with Father Doheny, was ordained to the priesthood on June 13, 1948 by Bishop Kinane of Cashel in the Thurles Cathedral.

He arrived in Sacramento on Jan. 14, 1949 and was appointed assistant pastor of St. Joseph Church in Sacramento, where he served until April 18, 1956.

Father Grace was appointed pastor of St. Theresa Parish in South Lake Tahoe on April 18, 1956, succeeding Father Patrick Lyons, founding pastor of St. Theresa Parish, who died on Feb. 29, 1956 at age 38 of leukemia. The street on which the parish is located, Lyons Avenue, was named after him in 1958. The parish consisted of a small church, a two-bedroom rectory and 26 parishioners.

When Father Grace arrived, the town of South Lake Tahoe had some 300 residents. In his first years in the parish, he focused on getting to know that small number of Catholic families who made up the parish, beginning a catechetical program in Marla Bay, the parish and at the town of Kyburz. He also celebrated Masses at nearby Camp Sacramento at the Chapel of Our Lady of the Sierras.

Responding to the growth in population after 1955 with the development of Heavenly Valley ski area, Father Grace asked the Forest Service about building a new church, but his request was denied. He was allowed to add two new wings to the existing church with outside seating available during the summer months. This is how he accommodated the growing weekend crowds until a new church was built in 2000. During his pastorate, the parish hall, rectory, school and convent were also built.

In an interview with archivist Father John Boll in 2013, Father Grace said the building of St. Theresa Parish School was a high point for him. The school was built in only three months, opening to students in the fall of 1959, staffed by the religious sisters from the Immaculate Heart of Mary community in Los Angeles, who taught in the school until it closed in 1970.

During his pastorate at St. Theresa, he was also involved in almost daily ministry to the sick at Barton Memorial Hospital for more than 50 years and remained as chaplain there in retirement, as well as visiting the residents of the Barton Skilled Nursing Facility. Through this ministry he met numerous people in the South Lake Tahoe community.

Over the many years of his pastorate, he could be seen early in the morning driving the parish tractor and using a snow-blower to clear away the snow in the church parking lot so people coming to Mass would have a place to park.

By the end of his pastorate, the number of parish households had increased from 100 to more than 1,000.

In retirement, Father Grace continued to help with Masses, funerals, confessions, baptisms and weddings at St. Theresa Parish for many years, played golf regularly, and visited with friends and parishioners in the Tahoe area.

In a reflection he wrote for The Catholic Herald on the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood in 2008, he said: “My life as a priest has been a good one. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Helping people to grow in their relationship to God has been fulfilling. God has blessed me abundantly and I thank him every day for the opportunities he has given me to serve him.”

Father Grace is survived by his cousin, Miriam Grogan, of Cashel, County Tipperary, Ireland. 

Some information for this story was taken from a biography written by Father John Boll in 2013.

Father John Grace on the 70th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood in June 2018. Photo by Philip DeLeon