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A Big Heart for All Things DePaul: Remembering the Rev. Thomas Grace, C.M.

Stained glass
(DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)

The Rev. Tom Grace, C.M., a beloved Vincentian priest who held several different positions at DePaul intermittently from the late 1960s into the early 2000s, died on Friday, June 5, after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease. A native Chicagoan, Fr. Grace entered the Congregation of the Mission in 1955, made his perpetual vows in 1960 and was ordained a priest four years later.

Former Associate Vice President in Student Affairs, Peggy Burke, described her former colleague as “a big man with a big heart for all things DePaul," capturing the quality and vitality of his presence on DePaul's campus spanning several decades. Fr. Grace served at the old DePaul Academy High School, now Byrne Hall, until it closed in 1968. He then transferred to the Vincentian high school seminary, St. John's, in Kansas City, Missouri. He returned to DePaul to join the Office of the University Chaplain, the forerunner of the Office of Campus Ministry - now the Division of Mission and Ministry - in 1972. He worked for one year in that role before becoming principal at the former St. Vincent de Paul High School Seminary in Lemont, Illinois, from 1973-79. In 1980, he was invited back to the university to take over the Office of Campus Ministry, which marked the beginning of the growing professionalization of the Student Affairs Division.

 The Rev. Thomas Grace, C.M., in 1980. (Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)
The Rev. Thomas Grace, C.M., in 1980. (Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)

Working closely with then-Student Affairs Vice President, Jim Doyle, Fr. Grace was a major contributor to changes in the operation and attitude of the division and the work of Campus Ministry. He introduced the hiring of non-clerics and women as university campus ministers. He also developed many programs and procedures to advance staff professional development.

“Fr. Grace worked with the original DePaul gay and lesbian student organization to help become better organized and seek university recognition," Doyle says. “Fr, Croak and I worked with Fr. Grace and the students to meet what we felt were conditions to get recognition. The climate in Catholic higher education was very much opposed to this at the time. This set DePaul apart on this topic and made us a respected leader on gay/lesbian issues, though not without ongoing strong opposition from many." 

Roxanne Owens, current professor and chair of Teacher Education in the College of Education, worked closely with Fr. Grace. She remembers being involved in Campus Ministry as a student.

“It gave me a real sense of belonging," she says. “A big part of that was due to Fr. Grace's welcoming personality."

Fr. Grace also had a long a storied history with DePaul University Athletics. A responsibility close to his heart, Fr. Grace became devoted to DePaul's women athletes, as well as to the staff of the Athletics program, serving as team chaplain to the women's basketball team from 1980-88.

“He had a fun loving way about him, always a good story or joke to tell," says Jean Lenti Ponsetto, Athletic Director. “The women athletes adored him for always being so kindhearted and supportive of them as women student-athletes."

Fr. Grace also was the originator of the optional 30-minute Mass before games, always weaving a message into his homilies about winning, playing without injury and his pride in the students playing for DePaul.

During his time with Campus Ministry, Fr. Grace was involved with social activities on campus, particularly with the fraternity and sorority student organizations. He was instrumental in promoting the development of what are now known as “Vincentian Values," especially in service to the poor. He inculcated those values in the students with whom he worked. He also recognized the need and made the effort to reach out to faculty and staff.

“Fr. Grace attended student events, so students knew him," Burke recalls of Fr. Grace's Vincentian personalism. “His door was open for any student who needed a sympathetic ear. He believed in students' potential and would do whatever he could to help them to succeed at DePaul. His affable and encouraging style made him a valued colleague, too. As a fellow director in the Student Affairs Division, I always appreciated his warmth and generous spirit."  

In 1992, the St. Vincent de Paul Society of the Chicago Archdiocese approached Fr. Grace with the invitation to undertake the directorship of that organization. This was very unusual, as the SVDP Society is a lay organization outside of the organizational structure of the Church. Fr. Grace was the only priest or cleric in the world who served as the operational director of an SVDP Society. He served in that capacity until the effects of Parkinson's Disease necessitated his retirement from in 2005.

During the period between 2002-05, Lenti Ponsetto invited him to spend more time in Athletics.

“He immediately took me up on the offer and before I could blink he was working in the Athletics Ticket Office," she says. “We told him we were looking for ways to bring more children's' groups to our sports games, notably children who wouldn't normally have the opportunity. He went to work and created a list from all his contacts while working for the Society, and the rest is history. 'The Father Grace List' was the founding of our Field Trip Day program. We bring in thousands of children from across Chicago to visit the Lincoln Park Campus or Wintrust Arena."

In 2004, Fr. Grace was inducted into the DePaul University Hall of Fame, receiving ​the Robert Hamilton Special Service Award in recognition of his contributions to the university and its students.

“Tom Grace will be forever in our hearts," Lenti Ponsetto says. “Vincent and Louise welcomed home a true ambassador of their messages today, most especially the messages of caring for and respecting the dignity of all."