On Monday, October 24, 2016, Rev. James J. McGrath, CSC, passed away. He was a longtime dedicated biology teacher and botanist. I was privileged to have him as the professor for Introduction to Biology. He humbly taught this course to dozens of students in a large auditorium. He would even forgo football games to work in his lab or office. He eventually became assistant chairman of the department.
However, it is as a priest-friend that I most remember him. He was the rector of Breen-Phillips for my first two years at Notre Dame. (Yes, Breen-Phillips was a men’s dorm back then.) He was totally unselfish, always thinking of others first. He befriended some of us, inviting us to go out in groups to eat, which was great since it was an opportunity to consume some good food, and he provided the transportation. For some, he acted as a successful matchmaker and the presider at weddings. He was always trying to make those who took the time to know him feel at home. I am grateful that he assisted in my effort to become a resident assistant in Cavanaugh Hall (yes, it too was a men’s dorm) for Fr. Matthew Miceli in my senior year.
He was 19 years my senior. So when I agreed to play handball with him, I thought my age and quickness would overcome any inexperience I had in playing handball. Playing barehanded, JJ, as he was affectionately known, stood in the middle of the court and put the ball wherever he wanted as I ran all over trying to return the ball. Needless to say I learned a lesson in humility that day. Only later did I find out that handball was a game in which many of the CSC priests excelled.
By the time I graduated in 1973, he was the chaplain of the Fire House. Besides his duties as Fire House Chaplain, he assisted at nearby parishes on Sundays.
He always made himself available to his alumni friends. He had two adjoining dorm rooms, the second of which he would graciously provide, together with an on-campus parking pass, for the use of visiting alumni and their spouses. If it was a football weekend, he would also provide his tickets since he did not attend the games. I was able to take advantage of this generosity on several occasions, which provided me with a unique connection to the university.
We still communicated although years passed between my visits to Notre Dame. He would occasionally send interesting articles. He even sent me a brick from the old Field House, which had been located directly across from Breen-Phillips, when it was torn down. That may seem relatively insignificant to today’s students but, for Notre Dame alumni who had the privilege of experiencing events in the Field House, it carries fond memories. Until the JACC was built, the Field House would host the University’s basketball games, which I was told were very intimidating to foes since, because of its small size, seating circled close to the court. The pep rallies in it were electric. The whole campus would crowd into the dirt floored arena sounding “moo” as we pushed into same. It was an “intimate” setting which pep rallies at Stepan Center and the JACC had difficulty imitating. In the summer, the Field House was the storage depot for students’ trunks and furniture. So I prize that gift.
In his final years, Fr. McGrath was confined to a wheelchair at Holy Cross House. At times while visiting him, I thought that his mental faculties had ebbed, but, at other times, it appeared that an active, but perhaps forgetful, mind had been trapped in a body that did not permit him to fully communicate. Yet he maintained his grace and a sense of contentment.
I am truly grateful that God permitted me to encounter JJ and to be the beneficiary of his generosity. Now fully engaged, may He enjoy the Lord’s gentle embrace.
Richard Maggi graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1973.