Still swinging: St. Theresa’s Father Grace approaches 90th birthday
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Even on his 90th birthday, the Rev. John Grace will be working.
The pastor emeritus at St. Theresa Catholic Church will officiate a wedding that day for the daughter of Dr. Michael Fry.
“He said, ‘It’s OK that I’m working on my birthday; it’s good for me,'” said Beverly Sass, parish secretary.
Grace, born Sept. 18, 1920, has been at St. Theresa Church since 1956. While it’s common for Catholic priests to be reassigned to other parishes, Grace has stayed in South Lake Tahoe and been a major force behind the growth of St. Theresa Church and the local Catholic community.
Grace knew he would be a priest even as a young boy. Growing up in Ireland’s County Tipperary, Grace said there was little opportunity outside of joining the priesthood.
His parents were also active in helping the poor in their community.
“I felt as I grew up, well, I’d like to help people,” Grace said.
His first assignment was in the Sacramento Diocese. He was recruited from Ireland.
“After the war, they were very short on priests in California,” he said. “There were no vocations during the war. They needed priests, so I volunteered.”
He arrived in California in 1948 and was pastor of a Catholic church in Sacramento.
When the Sacramento Diocese assigned Grace to the South Lake Tahoe parish in 1956, it consisted of a small church, a two-bedroom rectory and 26 parishioners. Grace was the successor to the Rev. Patrick Lyons, the church’s first pastor who died of leukemia at age 38. The street on which the parish is located, Lyons Avenue, was named after him in 1958.
As the community of South Lake Tahoe grew, St. Theresa Church followed. The parish hall, rectory, school and convent were built, and the church expanded.
In order to accommodate the thousands of visitors each summer, Saint Theresa assumed responsibility for Our Lady of the Sierra Mission at Camp Sacramento from the Franciscans, and established Saint Mary in the Pines, an outdoor chapel at Stateline.
Construction of Saint Theresa Catholic School began in the spring of 1960 and opened that year.
“People began to clamor for a school,” Grace said.
In May of 1993, Grace retired and Monsignor Murrough Wallace was appointed by Bishop Francis Quinn as Saint Theresa’s third pastor.
But Grace never really retired.
He still says Mass at least twice a week. As the chaplain of Barton Memorial Hospital, most days are spent comforting families and praying with patients. At a parent’s request and consent, he will baptize a dying baby. He also visits the homebound and the residents of the Barton Skilled Nursing Facility.
Sass remembers how Grace would visit her every day in the hospital when she was dealing with a health crisis.
“He was a ray of sunshine every morning when I was in the hospital, and his words of encouragement were so important at such a difficult time for me and my family,” Sass said.
Grace says he may retire for real sometime soon, but he’s not sure when.
“It could be anytime,” he said. “One of these months I’ll wake up and that’s it.”