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When Fr. Frank Grady stood at the altar at the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday, he led worship at St. Bernardine Catholic Church for the last time. His superior has directed Grady, who is 72, to move to the order’s retirement facility in Rhode Island.
The priest known for what a colleague called a “crusty” personality packed the rectory at 7246 Harrison on Sunday morning and, during the Mass, got three standing ovations. At the reception for him afterward at Fearing Hall, there was another full house. St. Bernardine’s multicultural congregation – Africans, African-Americans, South Asians, Southeast Asians, Koreans, Hispanics, and whites – turned out to pay tribute to the plain-speaking New Englander.
Yes, Grady, with his “Baaston” accent, could be blunt. An example of Grady’s not mincing words was his response to why St. Bernardine, along with so many other local churches, has been losing members.
“It’s because of society today. It seems society has given up all values,” he would say. “The Holy Spirit better wake up and do a little spreading of his wings.”
The son of Irish immigrants had a low tolerance level for pretension. When Grady came to St. Bernardine in 1989, he was working in the alcohol and drug rehabilitation program at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. He said Masses on the weekends to help out Fr. Fearon and Fr. Dario. In 1995, he left Lutheran General and became a full-time assistant at St. Bernardine.
Never did he show any ambition to rise in the Catholic hierarchy. Five years after being ordained in 1963, the young priest was sent by his order to serve in Korea. Since he was 6 years old, he says, he had wanted to serve in China. But with Mao’s rise to power, that dream became impossible.”I was so happy when I received the letter from my superior telling me that I had been assigned there,” Grady recalls, referring to Korea.
His time in Korea, from 1968 to1972, had a profound effect on the formation of his tell-it-like-it-is character and on his faith, according to Donna Gawlas, chairwoman of St. Bernardine’s parish council. Life in the peninsula nation, as it recovered from World War II and the Korean War, was hard. “His time there really moved him,” Gawlas said.
Content for 22 years to serve as an assistant here in Forest Park, Grady was more at ease working with down-and-out alcoholics than mixing with the pomp and circumstance the church can sometimes get into.
Fr. Pat Tucker, who preceded Fr. George Velloorattil as St. Bernardine’s pastor, said that Fr. Grady was quick to show up when he heard that a parishioner was in the hospital and that he was faithful in making communion calls on shut-ins. “A lot of people would call,” he said, “to ask his advice or just air things out with him over the phone. He was a real ‘pastoral’ priest,” Tucker said.
Fr. Grady acknowledged that he got a lot of satisfaction from this kind of pastoral care and added that his work with recovering alcoholics and addicts was perhaps the most satisfying ministry of all. “It’s the most amazing work,” he says, “in the sense of the Spirit moving people to take an honest look at themselves.”
While saying that St. Bernardine has a good core of members with a mature spirituality, he wished that more people would show the same intense commitment to doing the hard work of turning their lives around as he’s witnessed in people going through 12-step programs.
“Many people these days don’t see the need,” he lamented. “I don’t think they’ve come face to face with what church is about. If you are involved it shows you want to do something with your life and faith.”
Mary Hibbits, who joined St. Bernardine shortly after immigrating here from Ireland in 1987, got to know Fr. Grady well while being treated for breast cancer in 1993. “He came to visit me,” she says, “and he was so understanding. Then, when I came home, he continued to visit me. He is a wonderful, sweet man.”
Gawlas knows firsthand that he’s effective in crises and times of loss. “He is phenomenal with those who are grieving. He’s very clear, helpful and prayerful. His way with people helped me get through a difficult situation.”
Mentions of difficult situations surface when Grady reflects on his life. “At first, the doctors thought I was a tumor, because my mother was too old to have children,” he says with a chuckle. “Then they had to use forceps to deliver me. The doctors said I wouldn’t survive. But God fooled them.”
That against-all-odds vibe has stayed with him. Fr. Tucker smiles as he remembers his colleague following, with a shovel, the trucks that plowed St. Bernardine’s parking lot, cleaning up what they’d missed and creating a pile Tucker used to call Mount Grady. All the while, his assistant would be yelling to bystanders, “Get out of the way. Get out of the way.”
“Under that gruff exterior,” says Gawlas, “he has an absolute heart of gold.”
The unrepentant Boston Celtics fan chokes up a little to say, “Thank God for being at St. Bernardine all these years. I’ve been happy.”
“We do our own little bit. We have our own personalities. We attract some people and turn other people off,” Grady says. “You need to look at yourself and say, ‘That’s life.’ As long as we keep trying to change ourselves, we’re OK.”