Cathedral community mourns passing of retired rector

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When the townspeople of Kildysart, County Clare in Ireland awoke the morning of July 12, all eyes fell onto the home of Msgr. Michael O’Grady — as they were accustomed. The opened blinds in his family room were a daily signal he was up and about and could receive visitors.

But the signal never came.

The death of Msgr. O’Grady, 85, who died in his sleep, sent a tsunami of emotions across the pond to Arizona, in particular, the Diocese of Phoenix.

“You could just walk past him and feel joy,” said Jen Pitera, youth minister at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral, who Msgr. O’Grady hired 18 years ago, when he served as rector.

Pitera, along with eighth-grade teacher Sara Tellez and five teens from the youth group, recently returned from a two-week trip to Ireland, where they spent 10 days with the retired priest.

“Because so many of our sisters, priests and missionaries are from Ireland, you just feel Irish too,” she said. “We wanted to take this pilgrimage in their honor.”

Through tears, Pitera described how their group began each day at Mass with Msgr. O’Grady, either in one of the three churches located in his town or in his home.

They also savored their long walks and his storytelling of life in his hometown: Per his habit, each morning he got his paper, a cup of coffee at the corner store and sat in the square to read or write his homily. The local butcher shop bears the family name, and four generations of O’Gradys are buried in the graveyard at the Church of St. Michael in Kildysart.

“He shared about his family, and talked about death and told us a cemetery wasn’t a sad place,” Pitera said, adding, “He told us who was buried there and why he was grateful for each and every one of them. It was truly beautiful.”

“I’m blessed to have known someone that genuinely lived his faith and did so with joy, love, compassion and conviction,” she said. “He taught us to be that light to others and he lived that authentically. If we understand what he taught us, we can be that for others.”

The charismatic and beloved priest of 61 years was ordained June 7, 1958 for the Diocese of Tucson and incardinated into the newly established Diocese of Phoenix in 1969.

He served as parochial vicar at St. Theresa Parish, and at Holy Cross Church in Morenci (located in the Diocese of Tucson). In addition, Msgr. O’Grady served as pastor of St. Daniel the Prophet Parish in Scottsdale, Holy Spirit Parish in Tempe and Christ the King Parish in Mesa.

It was during his time as rector of Ss. Simon and Jude that he formed close bonds with the Loreto Sisters. Sr. Raphael Quinn, IBVM, principal of Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral School, called her friend of several decades a “holy man.”

“Fr. O’Grady never stopped being a priest in retirement. He was constantly reaching out to people in need,” she said. “He absolutely loved people and people felt that. He was very accepting and they were drawn to his holiness and humility.”

Sr. Raphael said people are reaching out to share how the Irish priest — whose favorite Psalm was 103 and who enjoyed socializing in the town pub located just 19 steps from his front door — impacted their lives.

“He never stopped wanting to be there for people, that is at the core of who he is: gentle and loving, and he would enter their pain and bring them comfort,” she said.

Anyone who knew him said he made them feel like his best friend. He used his Irish humor, servant’s heart and joyful nature to confer the sacraments and minister to the sick, those in prison or shouldering a burden.

In his retirement years he served as chaplain for the Cursillo movement, and in 2018 he was among three priests who accepted the “Guardian of Hope” Award on behalf of the Irish priests of the diocese, at the annual Night of Hope.

Msgr. O’Grady was born to Michael and Elizabeth O’Grady on May 21, 1934 in Kildysart, Co. Clare. He attended Kildysart National School and St. Flannan’s College in Ennis. Following his studies for the priesthood at St. Patrick’s College in Carlow, he boarded a boat to America, along with two other priests.

He was 24 when he left home and managed to return each summer, crossing the Atlantic 70 times.

Just last year he made the trip once again to celebrate his Diamond Jubilee in his childhood church, which was attended by Fr. Greg Schlarb, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Scottsdale.

“His was the life of gratitude,” Fr. Schlarb said. “The day of his 60th anniversary he was so happy and people in his town talked about it again and again.”

“Mike had catch phrases; ‘just show up,’ was one. He had a professor say he has done as much as he could to prepare him, now he needs to learn the rest of it from the people he serves, and Mike took that to heart,” he added.

His visit last year was in stark comparison to his visit this time; joined by his town, two bishops, 40-plus priests and four Phoenix priests for Msgr. O’Grady’s Requiem Mass.

“I really believe in my heart we’ll never know all of the love he spread to people throughout his lifetime,” said Mary Jo Wahlers, director of advancement at the cathedral school who was married by the monsignor. “There are thousands of people who have all these beautiful stories because he did his job so well, with humility and love. To meet him once would have been a great joy, but knowing him was one of the greatest blessings of my life.”

Msgr. O’Grady was preceded in death by his parents, brothers Dan, Paddy and Tom and sisters Annie Greene and Betty O’Dea. He is survived by his sister Rose Meaney, brother-in-law Michael, sister-in-law Eileen and several nephews, nieces and cousins. He will be deeply missed by his friends from both sides of the pond, including brother priests, parishioners and the Loreto Sisters.

A Requiem Mass was held July 19 at the Church of St. Michael in Kildysart, Co. Clare. A Memorial Mass was to be held Aug. 9 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral. Donations in Msgr. O’Grady’s memory may be made to Ss. Simon and Jude School for the benefit of the Msgr. Michael O’Grady Memorial Endowed Scholarship Fund, 6351 N. 27th Ave., Phoenix.