By GEORGIA BULLETIN STAFF | Published February 8, 2024
ATLANTA—Msgr. Henry Charles Gracz, longtime pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, died Feb. 5, in Atlanta. He was 84 years old.
Born in September 1939 to Henry and Irene Gracz, he was raised in Buffalo, New York. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Canisius College in Buffalo before entering St. John Vianney Seminary in East Aurora, New York.
Often it’s a parish priest or pastor who is the first vocation director, having the most influence on inspiring vocations, Msgr. Gracz once shared.
“I know that the priests in my parish when I was growing up had a great deal to do with my early consideration of the priesthood,” he said in a 1980 article in The Georgia Bulletin. “The priest must be a mirror of God—a powerful obligation, of course—but a mirror of God nonetheless.”
While a seminarian, Msgr. Gracz visited Archbishop Paul Hallinan during a weekend trip to Atlanta. The archbishop asked him to come and serve in Georgia. There were plenty of priests in Buffalo, but only 30 in Atlanta at the time.
Archbishop Hallinan ordained him to the priesthood on May 8, 1965, at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta.
The priest’s first assignment in the archdiocese was as an assistant pastor at St. Joseph Church in Athens. In 1967, he was assigned to serve as an assistant pastor at the Cathedral of Christ the King from 1967 to 1970. While at the Cathedral, he formed the “Cathedral Folk,” a musical group of students and young adults. The group produced an album and later became the Cathedral Ensemble.
A priest for 59 years, Msgr. Gracz began his service as pastor of the Shrine in 2001. His other pastorates included St. Joseph Church, Athens; Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Decatur; Transfiguration Church, Marietta; Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta; St. John the Evangelist Church, Hapeville; and St. James the Apostle Church, McDonough.
At each parish community, he worked to build connections with parishioners and the community at large through outreach to the poor, the suffering and the excluded.
While at Sts. Peter and Paul, he brought in religious women to join the pastoral staff, and a laywoman from Africa to act as a liaison for the growing number of Black families joining the parish.
As pastor of the Shrine, he continued its outreach of the night shelter, open during winter months in conjunction with Central Presbyterian Church next door, and St. Francis Table soup kitchen feeding hundreds weekly. He fostered a welcoming community that invited people from all walks of life. He was dedicated to creating a compassionate home for LGBT persons.
Throughout his decades in Atlanta, his priestly ministry included working with Marriage Encounter and Cursillo, and he felt these renewal programs were vital.
“Once a person is touched by renewal, the relationship with God and people can never be the same again,” he said in a 1990 story.
Msgr. Gracz also served as the vicar for clergy for several years and on the Council of Priests for the archdiocese. In December 1995, he was given the papal honor of monsignor, but preferred to be called “Father Henry.”
Msgr. Gracz announced his terminal cancer diagnosis to his parishioners in a letter on Feb. 1, saying that they were family to him and deserved to know.
He wrote, “I love you all and trust that you are holding me close. As Jesus taught us, death is never the ending—only the beginning.” He signed the letter, “Yours in Christ, Fr. Henry.”
A Mass celebrating Msgr. Gracz’s 50th jubilee was held in 2015. Father Steve Yander was the homilist and recalled his friend’s response to the “realization that he was being called in some way to be a vehicle of God’s love.”
“Our church locally is so much richer because he made the decision to come South, this Yankee from Buffalo. What a difference it made in his life and in our lives,” Father Yander said.
Msgr. Gracz is survived by his cherished sister, Joan Evaniak; nephews Mark Evaniak and Dean Evaniak; nieces Cynthia Kearns (Lance) and Pamela Alexander (John); his adoring canine companion, Señor Taco; and his friends Jorge Muñoz, Jerry Bryant, Ricardo Navarro, Patricia Gardella, Helen Ray and Dan Parodi. He is preceded in death by his brother-in-law, John.
A vigil service will be Friday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m. at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, located at 48 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. SW, Atlanta. A funeral Mass and celebration of life will be held on Saturday, Feb. 24, at 11 a.m. at the Shrine. Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, formerly of Atlanta, and Atlanta Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., will celebrate the Mass. Msgr. Gracz will be interred in the crypt at the Shrine immediately following the funeral.
Donations in Msgr. Gracz’s memory may be made to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta for patients with incurable cancer who cannot afford care.