Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Photo by Andrew Nelson
As part of the Feb. 24 funeral Mass, Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory swings a censer filled with burning incense toward the cremains of Msgr. Henry Gracz. In an earlier statement, the former Atlanta archbishop said the priest served everyone “with a kindness that easily won their hearts and trust.”


Msgr. Henry Gracz leaves legacy of inclusive faith and love at Shrine 

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 7, 2024

ATLANTA—The red brick church, where Msgr. Henry Gracz offered hospitality that emphasized “there’s a place in God’s church for everyone,” was filled to overflowing for his funeral on Saturday, Feb. 24, by people who had been welcomed by him   

Several hundred believers, scores of priests and deacons, family members and church leaders offered thanks to God for the man who preached and lived a faith where every man and woman “can take refuge in the shade of God’s grace no matter who you are or how you love,” as Father Joseph Morris put it in the homily.  

Saturday’s funeral drew in gay Catholics, pastors from nearby Protestant Churches and youngsters the longtime priest had baptized.  

“He made the Shrine a place of love and acceptance in a world so often characterized by hate and indifference,” said Atlanta Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv. “His challenge to all of us was to be the hands and the feet of Jesus Christ.”  

Stole, baptismal candle symbolize faith and vocation 

Guests filled the wooden pews in the historic downtown church long before the 11 a.m. Mass began. At the foot of the altar, where Msgr. Gracz celebrated countless Masses, weddings and other sacraments, a table covered in a white cloth stood adorned with yellow roses and purple and red flowers. An urn holding his cremains was placed among the flowers. One of his stoles—the vestment worn by priests—with colorful diamond shapes, draped off the table. A large baptismal candle stood nearby.   

Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory, of the Archdiocese of Washington and the former archbishop of Atlanta, led the service. He was joined by Atlanta bishops and clergy. Rabbi Scott Colbert, of the American Jewish Committee in Atlanta, read an excerpt from the Book of Ruth.   

Msgr. Henry Gracz as a seminarian in 1965. Photo from Archives of the Archdiocese

Born in September 1939, Msgr. Gracz was raised in Buffalo, New York. He was drawn to the mission territory of Georgia where there were only 30 priests at the time here. Archbishop Paul Hallinan ordained him to the priesthood on May 8, 1965, at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta.  

A priest for 59 years, Msgr. Gracz began his service as pastor of the Shrine in 2001. He was 84 years old when he died due to a recurrence of cancer.  His remains were interned in the church crypt, alongside the parish’s noted Civil War era pastor Father Thomas O’Reilly. 

‘Radical hospitality’ drew in others  

Offering his reflections, Father Steve Yander said his brother priest had a gift to size people up and know how they could contribute to making the parish into a living, vibrant community of faith.  

“He wanted that community to reflect the love of Christ that all of us are called to share,” he said.    

The Shrine—the monsignor’s home for 20 years—was special to him because he could find the poor living outside his door. He embarked on a project to renovate the church basement to accommodate more people seeking shelter during the cold winter months.  

“We were blessed,” said Father Yander. “We met the man who thoroughly reflected to us the love of God and he calls us to reflect that to each other.”  

The Shrine of Immaculate Conception Choir, with members Mark Bodnar, Spencer Stelljes, Elizabeth Santamaria and Rebecca Simantov, lent their voices to the funeral service on Saturday, Feb. 24 for Msgr. Henry Gracz. Photo by Andrew Nelson

Msgr. Gracz was a “homie” to the downtrodden, Rev. Bec Cranford said, offering “radical hospitality” to everyone he met. Cranford is the Director of Community Engagement & Volunteer Services at Gateway Center, a downtown nonprofit aiding people who are homeless.  

“He stood for justice and love wherever he went,” she said.  

“While I was not a Catholic, when I was around Henry, I was a Catholic. My catechism was the way he offered hospitality to the masses on the streets of Atlanta, and in the marches and the protests. My confirmation would be in his office when he would offer me, a sinner, the elements—he would offer love and grace to me.”  

Grace is found amid the mess 

In his homily, Father Morris said, “Henry and brave church people like him” modeled how to bring light to taboo subjects, from liturgical translations and racism in the church to the role of women.  

For Msgr. Gracz, his spirituality focused on embracing individuals of all backgrounds, orientations and life experiences, without exception. Ministry fueled him.  

“The pastor lived to serve. It wasn’t work. It was passion,” said Father Morris. And during the times when he could be a “grumpy curmudgeon,” his attention remained focused on helping “you to be open to what God is bringing about in your life.”  

Recounting the parable from St. Mark’s Gospel about the seeds that fall on four different terrains, Father Morris said the beloved priest witnessed the messiness in people’s lives but believed God had bigger plans. 

 “Henry might tell you that, yes, sometimes you fall on unproductive ground, but you are meant for the rich earth where you will prosper and bring forth fruit,” he said.