Father Jack McGrath, Marianist leader and man of humor, dies at 81

By: Dominic Sanfillipo – Staff Writer

Some people stay in your memory even if you’ve only met them once. It could be their smile, their laugh or their outlook on life. For others, it could be something profound they said or did that lingers with you long afterward.

By all accounts, Father Jack McGrath, S.M., who passed away at the age of 81 on Dec. 26, was one such person. Whether it was for two weeks or 60 years, Father Jack left an indelible mark on thousands of people across the globe and the Marianist family.

Jack Mcgrath
Father Jack. Photo: udayton.edu.

“Jack loved his work here at UD,” wrote the Rev. James Fitz, S.M., the university’s vice president for the Office for Mission and Rector, to colleagues and fellow Marianists in an email announcing Father Jack’s passing. “Jack’s love for the University was reciprocated by many who have expressed their deep affection for him as the news of his illness spread.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1935, Father Jack entered the novitiate to become a Marianist brother at the young age of 18 because he was so struck by the personalities of the Marianists he encountered at Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York, according to his obituary from the Marianist headquarters in Rome.

By 1957, Father Jack had obtained a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from UD. Soon afterward, he found himself teaching subjects from math to religious studies in Dayton and New York, back at his alma mater. He entered seminary a few years later and was ordained a priest in 1966 at the Marianist seminary in Fribourg, Switzerland.

From that point onward, he served in almost every role possible throughout the Marianist world, from provincial of the Marianist Province of New York, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ advisory board and the university professor of faith and culture at UD.

“My experience of Father Jack was a person of quiet and deep joy in his work as teacher, as priest and as colleague,” said Sandra Yocum, Ph.D., the director of graduate work in religious studies at UD.

“Those that knew him can tell you about his laugh–a kind of burst of amusement–or the twinkle that would light up his eyes in talking about something that he enjoyed, whether it be in his theological thinking, his life as a Marianist, his teaching or his seemingly endless marrying of nieces and nephews and baptizing of the ever-expanding McGrath family.”

Almost every person writing and commenting after Father Jack’s death brought up his sense of humor and mischief. Brother Brian Zampier, who lived with Father Jack for a decade in the Washington Street Community in Dayton, recalled “a classic quote from Jack, as he wagged his finger back and forth, was ‘fruit is not dessert!’” according to the official obituary from Rome.

…a classic quote from Jack, as he wagged his finger back and forth, was ‘fruit is not dessert!’

When the University of Dayton posted news of Father Jack’s passing on its official Facebook page, the comments section lit up with testimonials to his life and fond memories of time shared together.

“I loved this man with all my heart. He was a wonderful human being who shaped me into who I am today,” UD grad Michael Cappuccitti wrote on Facebook. “Even though I was never the most religious guy in the room, I always listened to, and did my best to abide by, whatever advice [he’d] give me.”

Father Marty Solma, S.M., the provincial of the Marianist Province of the United States, shared a fond memory of Father Jack with Flyer News from a passage he wrote for his funeral.

“In 2011, at the age of 76, we asked Jack to serve as the Assistant Director Supervisor for our District of India,” wrote Solma.

“We needed a good mentor for young leadership, someone with experience and with the ability to show, by concrete example, what leadership in the Society of Mary entails. At a time in his life when he could have comfortably reduced his ministry commitments and enjoyed a still-vital life at UD, he said ‘yes’, as he had done so many times before.”

“For three years in India, despite the heat, the inconveniences and the daily diet of rice, he gave generously of himself in the service of this developing unit of the Society of Mary,” Solma continued. “Even after his initial stroke, he insisted that India is where he should be. He loved the Indian brothers and had great hopes for the future of the Society of Mary in this part of the world.

“Because of health concerns, I told him in October that his upcoming trip to India in January would have to be his last. He looked at me and said, in his typical ‘harrumph’ style, ‘I will think about it.’ Clearly, the Lord had even better plans for him.”

Fitz ended his email to friends and family across the Marianist spectrum with some recent words from Father Jack himself. In reading them, you might remember the words of your favorite professors, colleagues and friends who have altered the course of your life during your time at Dayton:

“Working with students in the process of making life decisions and assisting them from the point of view of opening avenues to reality, truth, values and the human needs around us is a unique role in society. And to be doing such work with competent, human and energetic colleagues broadens the sense of a community in action.”

To learn more about Father Jack’s life, please visit here.