Rev. James J. McGrath, C.S.C.

Fr. Rioux0018

Oct.30, 1931-Oct. 24, 2016

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Rev. James J. McGrath, C.S.C., 84, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame, died at Holy Cross House, Notre Dame, Ind. on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016.

Click here to watch Fr. McGrath’s Funeral Mass viaYouTube.

He was born on October 30, 1931 in Brooklyn, New York to John J. and Anna Grace (Branigan) McGrath. He attended St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Grade School and St. John’s Preparatory School. In 1946, at the age of 14, he entered Holy Cross Seminary at Notre Dame as a freshman. After graduation in 1950, and a year in the Novitiate, he made his First Vows on August 16, 1951, he studied theology at Holy Cross College, Washington, D.C., and was ordained to the priesthood in St. Augustine’s Cathedral, Bridgeport, CT, June 5, 1959. During several summers he had studied at Notre Dame in order to earn a master’s degree in botany.

Following a year’s pastoral apprenticeship at Notre Dame, Fr. McGrath pursued doctoral studies at the University of California, where he obtained a doctorate in botany in 1965. Fr. McGrath taught at Notre Dame from 1965 until 2003 as a Professor of Biology, and he was Assistant Chair of the Biology Department. He taught Plant Taxonomy, Plant Anatomy, Biological Micro technique and a class for non-science majors, Plants, Food and Society. Fr. McGrath also spent many hours caring for the biology greenhouse. One of Fr. McGrath’s last official acts in the Biology Department was signing off on, and approving the design, of the new Biology Department greenhouse which is now part of the Jordan Science Building.

In 2008, Fr. McGrath was presented an award commemorating his years of service (1965-2003), to the Notre Dame Biological Science Department. A bronze plaque hangs at the entrance to the greenhouse with his name and honorary title of, “Keeper of the Plants.”

Over the years, Fr. McGrath was teacher to many Notre Dame students. He also served as Chaplain to the Notre Dame Fire Department where he also resided for 20 years. Fr. McGrath’s duties went beyond the campus as he spent his weekends ministering at local parishes; one in particular, Sacred Heart of Mary Missionary Parish in Dowagiac, Michigan. Every weekend, Fr. McGrath would drive up to Michigan to celebrate Mass until he was assigned to Holy Cross House in 2005.

Preceding him in death are his parents, John J. and Anna Grace McGrath; sisters, Rosemary (McGrath) Monahan and Delores (McGrath) McClellan; and nephew, Douglas McClellan. He is survived by a sister, Thérése McGrath, as well as several nieces and nephews.

Visitation will be from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sunday, October 30, 2016, at Moreau Seminary, Notre Dame, IN, where there will be a Wake Service at 7:30 p.m. The Funeral Mass will be at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the Notre Dame campus on Monday, October 31, 2016 at 3:30 p.m. Burial will be in the community cemetery at Notre Dame. Kaniewski Funeral Home, South Bend, is in charge of the arrangements.

Memorial contributions in support of the mission and ministries of the Congregation of Holy Cross can be made to: United States Province of Priests and Brothers, Office of Development, P.O. Box 765, Notre Dame, IN 46556-0765 or online at

Funeral Homilyby Rev. Tom Blantz, C.S.C.
Oct. 31, 2016

Teilhard de Chardin, in one of his works, The Divine Milieu, I believe, describes the work of a simple gardener on an expansive private estate. He is responsible for all the plants and shrubs and flowers. Each day, he is either preparing the soil, planting or re-planting, watering and fertilizing, cutting and pruning, working in both rain and hot sun. The same work every day, and for the worker, probably tiring, monotonous, and even boring.

But Teilhard says that if he really understood what he was doing, it was a wonderfully noble and lofty life he was living. God had created the plants and shrubs and trees at the beginning of time, and continued to preserve and guide and care for them every house of every day, and what that gardener was doing was working hand-in-hand with God, co-creating with Him, cooperating with God in bringing His creation towards its goal.

This was Father Jim McGrath’s life and work also, studying and marvelling at the minutest details of each plant and leaf and flower, noting common characteristics and striking variations, and seeing there the reflection somehow of the infinite wisdom and perfection of the God who designed it all. Our first reading from the Book of Wisdom says: “Men are foolish who from good things do not succeed in knowing Him who is, for from the greatness and beauty of created things, their original author is seen.” Pope Francis in “Laudato Si” writes: “the universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God … hence, we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships. We understand better the importance and meaning of each creature if we contemplate it within the entirety of God’s plan.” Elsewhere: “There is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed it succinctly: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

But Father Jim was much more than a scientist, of course, a wonderful human being, and he saw the nobility of other human beings, the pride of God’s creation, and he treated them with respect and kindness. I was with him in both high school and college seminary; and with the little bag of tools he ever had handy, he was always willing to assist and repair whatever the rest of us had broken. He was dedicated to his students, spending long hours with them in classrooms and laboratories. He enjoyed his work, as chaplain to the brothers and others in the University fire house, and for years, he drove every weekend into Michigan for his parish ministry of Mass and Confession and weddings and funerals.

And studying God’s creation as closely as he did must have put even death in its proper perspective for him. Plants and flowers and shrubs must die only to make room for a new and even better generation. We are reminded of that especially at this time of year, late October and early November. The planting season is now over, the harvest is in, the leaves are falling, plants are dying, and even the Church’s liturgical year is approaching its end. But we know that none of these endings are final. Next spring there will be new buds and blossoms, new plants and leaves, and a new liturgical year will begin with the First Sunday of Advent. Christianity is a religion of new beginnings – beginnings into a better future. Christ in today’s Gospel tells us: “I solemnly assure you that unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. The man who loves his life loses it, while the man who hates his life in this world, preserves it to life eternal.” Death is not primarily the end of anything, but a stepping stone into something infinitely better.

Father Jim’s life and work, then, can offer a challenge to each one of us – to see the hand and reflection of God in the world around us. His power and majesty in the movement of the stars and planets, His beauty and goodness in the changing seasons, and scenic lakes and mountains, His presence in everyone we meet, and the challenge to live each day in this presence of God with whom we will live, with Father Jim and all who have gone before us, for all eternity.

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