‘Amazing Grace’: South Lake Tahoe community mourns death and celebrates life of Rev. John Grace
Speaking in 2010 about the road that led him to a life of service, the Rev. John Grace said: “I felt as I grew up, well, I’d like to help people.”
If the outpouring of support and remembrances the past several days is any measurement, he helped a countless number of them.
Grace, whose service as pastor at St. Theresa Catholic Church predated the incorporation of the city of South Lake Tahoe, died Saturday, May 4, at the age of 98.
Known for his generosity, wit, humble nature and love of golf, he remained active up until the day before he died, when a fall during an afternoon walk led to his hospitalization.
Grace’s more than seven decades on Tahoe’s South Shore — nearly three of which were spent in “retirement” — helped shape the community in ways that will be felt for years to come.
“He really helped to build Lake Tahoe,” said Danette Winslow, director of religious education at St. Theresa. “He always just had his finger on the pulse of South Lake Tahoe. …. Whatever the community needed or the parish needed, he would do it. He was just that kind of person.”
Aside from playing a pivotal role in the creation of St. Theresa as it’s known today, Grace worked with community members to form programs such a Bread & Broth, which provides free meals and food to community members in need.
“He truly is amazing Grace,” said Beverly Sass, church secretary at St. Theresa.
Ireland to Sacramento
Born in Tipperary, Ireland in 1920, Grace was the second of three children. He recounted in a 2010 interview with the Tribune he knew he wanted to be a priest at a young age because, at least in part, there were not many other career opportunities. His parents’ commitment to helping the poor also influenced his decision.
Grace entered Saint Patrick Seminary in Thurles, County Tipperary in 1942, according to a document in the Sacramento Diocesan Archives.
After his ordination six years later, he made his way to the United States to serve in the Diocese of Sacramento — a decision he made after an Irish-born priest visited the seminary and expressed a need for volunteers in California’s capital.
Nearly eight years after arriving in Sacramento, Grace was appointed pastor of St. Theresa Parish in South Lake Tahoe. The appointment followed the death of the Rev. Patrick Lyons, who founded the parish just five years prior to his death, according to the diocesan archive.
Growing with Grace
At the time of Grace’s arrival, both South Lake Tahoe and St. Theresa were much smaller than they are today. The city had about 300 permanent residents and St. Theresa counted about 20 families among its parishioners.
Both would see significant growth in the following years, and Grace worked to expand St. Theresa to meet the swelling crowd of worshipers.
He added two new wings to the church, increasing the seating from 200 to 600, according to the diocesan archive. The expanded facility served worshipers until a new church was built in 2000.
He also was responsible for the construction of the parish school in 1959. It operated until 1970 when a conflict with the religious order of the sisters who taught at the school forced its closure.
Grace also put an emphasis on engaging youth, knowing that they would be the future of the church.
As a pastor, Grace was what could be considered “liberal,” explained parishioner and friend Doug Morris. He was open and inviting to other faiths, rather than the sort who would demonize and demand conversion.
Grace’s good nature had an impact on Morris — who was raised Presbyterian and attended high school in South Lake Tahoe after his family relocated to the community in the early ‘60s — fairly early in life.
He was in high school at the time of the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of church officials intended to provide clarity on issues impacting the church.
The Catholic and Presbyterian student groups at the high school would get together so that Grace could explain the changes coming out of the Council.
In hindsight, said Morris, those and other early life experiences with Grace helped form the basis for his eventual conversion to Catholicism.
Service beyond the church
Grace did not limit his good deeds to the grounds of St. Theresa.
“He was a community person, not just a Catholic community person,” Morris said.
When Barton Memorial Hospital was built in the early ‘60s, Grace made it a point to visit the hospital daily, offering to see any patients in need of spiritual healing.
That practice, which he continued through most of his life, helped establish connections in the community, noted Winslow, St. Theresa’s director of religious education.
In addition to visiting patients, Grace served on the hospital’s original board.
Grace also represented a trustworthy party during some of the most acrimonious times in the community.
In a 2006 Tribune story, he recalled his role in helping run the city of South Lake Tahoe’s first building permit lottery — a program created in response to the rampant development of the previous decades. As the Tribune reported, Grace agreed to don a blindfold and draw 300 names from the 6,000 entries.
“No one would trust anybody. It was intense. I think they thought the blindfold would break the tension,” he said in 2006. “Somebody told me: ‘If I knew you would be drawing, I would’ve been in church in the morning.’”
In a sign of Grace’s impact beyond the Catholic community, on Monday City Manager Frank Rush, Jr. asked all flags on city facilities be lowered to half-staff. They will remain that way through Friday.
“For years Father Grace put the community of South Lake Tahoe first. His desire to lift people up, to help those in need, and give back to this community left a lasting impression on everyone who knew him,” Mayor Brooke Laine said in a statement. “He raised the bar on what a priest should be and served as an example of the best of humanity. He will not soon be forgotten in South Lake Tahoe.”
Grace’s retirement as pastor at St. Theresa in 1993 was certainly deserved. At that point he had served as pastor in South Lake Tahoe for 37 years — a nearly unheard of feat in a profession that typically sees pastors shuffling from parish to parish.
During that time he put in an innumerable amount of work, both spiritual work and manual labor.
Morris, who became a lector in the church and helped with maintenance, recalled a time when he and Grace were working on a boiler in what is now known as Grace Hall. The room was flooded with 6 inches of water, which both Grace and Morris were standing in as they did electrical work.
The sight did not go over well with Morris’ wife, Linda, he recalled with a chuckle.
“I think Father had the idea ‘well God’s got us covered …’”
While Grace’s retirement was deserved, it wasn’t entirely accurate. He remained involved in the parish and played an important role in reopening the school at St. Theresa in the ’90s.
He continued to make his rounds at Barton and would occasionally preside over mass.
Rarely did he turn down requests for baptisms, weddings and last rites.
“He never said ‘no,’” Winslow remarked.
Grace even offered his services to the pastors who came after him.
In situations where a new pastor follows a retired pastor, the retired pastor can harbor judgement. That was not the case with Grace, said the Rev. Michael O’Reilly, who served as pastor at St. Theresa from 2006-2008.
O’Reilly, now the pastor at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, said Grace was always willing to help.
“He was very supportive.”
Love of golf
If faith was Grace’s primary passion, golf was second.
Chances are when he wasn’t conducting impromptu blessing or conversing with community members during his retirement, he was golfing.
Morris recalled one outing on a cold, blustery day at Lake Tahoe Golf Course. It was lightly snowing, and he couldn’t wait to finish the first nine holes and call it a day.
After finishing the ninth hole, Grace took off for the tenth tee.
“He didn’t’ care. He had to get in his 18.”
Morris said Grace was in his mid-80s at the time.
Last summer Grace played all 18 holes in the charitable golf tournament named after him, the Father Grace Invitational.
The round was an appropriate metaphor for his longevity in the community he called home.
Said St. Theresa secretary Sass: “He was just a man of God. He was the epitome of a gentleman, with a wicked Irish sense of humor. And (he) played a mean game of golf — something he really enjoyed.”