Father John Grace
Father John Grace, former pastor of Saint Theresa Catholic Church in South Lake Tahoe, passed away on May 4, 2019, at the age of 98. Father Grace had injured himself in a fall while on a walk near his Al Tahoe residence a few days before his death. He was born September 18, 1920, to John and Cecilia Grace in the small coal mining village of The Commons, County Tipperary, Ireland. He was predeceased by his parents and two sisters, Catherine (“Rena”) and Maureen. At the time of his death, Father Grace was the oldest priest in the Diocese of Sacramento.
John Grace attended The Commons Primary School where his parents and an aunt and uncle were teachers. The family supplemented their income by raising stock and milk cattle, and by growing vegetables on their modest family farm. After eighth grade, John’s parents sent him to boarding school at the Cistercian College in Roscrea for his secondary school education. It was at this school that John Grace contemplated entering the priesthood. John was deeply influenced by more than 100 cloistered priests and monks at the college who had taken vows of poverty, and who balanced their lives between prayer and meaningful work. In 1942, John Grace was admitted to Saint Patrick Seminary in Thurles, County Tipperary, where he studied philosophy and theology for six years.
In 1946, while in the seminary, John Grace was approached by Father Thomas Kirby, an Irish born priest from California who was looking for future priests to serve the Diocese of Sacramento. California had a shortage of priests due to rapid population growth following the Second World War. Bishop Armstrong of Sacramento wanted priests who would commit to at least five years of service. John and another seminarian, Richard Doheny, signed up and continued their studies in the seminary. John Grace was ordained a priest in the Thurles Cathedral on June 13, 1948, by Bishop Kinane of Cashel.
On December 3, 1948, Father Grace received his American visa and within three days was booked on a Pam Am flight to New York where he stayed with an aunt for about a week. After meeting up with Father Doheny in New York, the two young priests flew to San Francisco, arriving in California at 2 AM. Later that morning they caught a short flight to Sacramento where they were greeted by Father William Sorato, the diocesan director of the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). Except for some day trips to Wales, these were Father Grace’s first travels outside of Ireland.
Two days after arriving in the Diocese, Father Grace was given a temporary assignment at Saint Joseph Church in North Sacramento. Father Michael O’Connell was the pastor and his assistant was Father Hugh McTague. Father McTague was soon transferred to Westwood where he was appointed pastor, allowing Father Grace to succeed him as Assistant at Saint Joseph where he ministered for the next seven and a half years. Father Grace gained valuable experience at Saint Joseph’s since he had to pick up a slack in ministry due to Father O’Connell’s failing health.
On April 18, 1956, Bishop Joseph McGucken appointed Father Grace as pastor of Saint Theresa Parish at Lake Tahoe following the death of Father Lyons on February 29, 1956, at the young age of 38. Father Lyons was the first pastor of the new parish and a very holy man. He and his brother, Father Michael Lyons, built the first Church where the current church is now located, which at that time was National Forest land. The wings and outdoor seating areas of the old church were added by Father Grace as a compromise after the Forest Service denied permission to build a new, larger church. This denial led to a series of complicated land swaps involving hundreds of acres of environmentally sensitive lands at Star Lake and Pope Beach, resulting in the ownership of the current church property by the Diocese. Father Grace was very involved in these land exchanges, which also changed the ownership of the American Legion Tract next door to Saint Theresa’s and the Trout Creek Tract across Highway 50 to private property.
When Father Grace arrived at Lake Tahoe the entire south shore only had about 300 permanent residents. In winter, Highway 50 would sometimes be closed for extended periods of time and residents often depended on each other for supplies and services. But the later part of the 1950s was also a period of enormous growth and Father worked hard to meet the needs of the burgeoning parish community. He started and taught the Parish’s first catechism classes which began with ten children in Marla Bay, ten children on the south shore, and five children in Kyburz. Father taught famed skier Spider Sabich who also served as an alter boy at Our Lady of the Sierras, Saint Theresa’s mission church in Camp Sacramento.
Father Grace and a growing number of visiting priests offered summer Mass at Saint Theresa’s and at several other sites over the years. These included the Pinecone Resort in Marla Bay, a former motel at the corner of Sacramento and Lakeview Avenues in Al Tahoe, Fred’s Place below Twin Bridges (now gone), the American Legion Hall, a brick cabin behind Rojos in Al Tahoe, Camp Sacramento, the former Globin Pier in Al Tahoe, a property on Keller Road across from Tahoe Tyrol, the Van Sickle Ranch in Stateline, and the former Saint Mary’s Outdoor Mission in Stateline.
Father Grace built and opened Saint Theresa School in 1959, and he built the current rectory and parish hall in 1966 and 1967. The parish hall is now named in honor of him. Father also moved a home donated by Delia Baumgart and her husband next to the school and converted it into a convent for the Immaculate Heart Sisters, a former teaching order. South Lake Tahoe’s first Mayor Norm Woods assisted with the remodel. In the late 1950s he built Lyons Avenue which he named after Father Lyons. Lyons Avenue was converted to a public street when South Lake Tahoe incorporated in 1965.
Father relished the four seasons at Lake Tahoe and especially loved the challenges brought on by a big winter. For years, he single-handedly plowed the church parking lot with his 1940s Willies Jeep. Father also put his repair skills to work and mended just about everything on the parish campus at one time or another. He also had a passion for golf and played the game well into his 90s. The annual fundraising golf tournament for the Parish’s religious education program is named after him.
Father Grace was one of ten residents who started a committee to open a hospital on south shore, which led to the founding of Barton Memorial Hospital in 1963. Each of the ten committee members pledged $100 as seed money for this enterprise. Father was on the first hospital board for one and a half years, and board meetings were held in the building that is now used as the senior center. For many years, even after he retired as pastor from Saint Theresa’s in 1993, Father was a regular visitor at Barton Hospital and tended to the spiritual needs of the patients there. This included the offering of sacraments, or sometimes just lending an ear and being present when needed.
Father also helped start the ecumenical Bread and Broth food program thirty years ago, which still offers free meals to the community every week from Grace Hall. Father’s loving actions to help the poor, feed the hungry, council the needy, and comfort the sick and dying in this community are too numerous to count. Also numerous are the many first communions, confirmations, weddings, reconciliations, anointings of the sick, and funerals that Father Grace led or participated in. Over the years, many thousands of parishioners and visitors attended Mass with Father Grace, including celebrities and notables such as Geraldine Ferraro, Danny Thomas, Bob and Dolores Hope, Lawrence Welk, and Jimmy Durante. Although he retired as pastor in 1993, returning visitors to Saint Theresa’s regularly ask about Father Grace and quickly share fond memories of him. On June 13, 2018, Father Grace celebrated the seventieth anniversary of his ordination with a Mass at Saint Theresa Church with hundreds of parishioners and friends in attendance.
Father liked to tell the story of his first trip to Lake Tahoe. As he was driving in the mountains, he met two large elephants charging up the highway. He thought to himself “No one told me there were elephants in the area,” and wondered if he was seeing things. The passing elephants damaged both sides of his car. As he reached the bottom of the summit, he met a man with a truck loaded with circus equipment from the Barnum and Bailey Circus. The man asked him if he had seen two elephants on the highway and Father responded, “Yes, but they are long gone by now.” The driver was using the elephants to pull the circus truck up the hill but the chains broke and the elephants got loose. Father kept this story to himself for many years after wondering what people might think of him.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Saint Theresa Parish though its website at www.TahoeCatholic.com. Father Grace’s funeral was held at Saint Theresa Church on Thursday, March 9, 2019. Private interment will be in Sacramento.