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December 9, 2007

Story teller, author, philosopher, cook

By Dolores Madlener



Father Dominic (Dom) Grassi, pastor of St. Gertrude Parish in Edgewater, jokes that he has spaghetti sauce in his DNA. Catholic New World/Karen Callaway

He is: Father Dominic Grassi, pastor, St. Gertrude Parish in Edgewater. Born 1947; ordained 1973; attended Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School, Quigley, Niles and St. Mary of the Lake.

Author of: “Do You Love Me?” on ministry in the church; “Bumping Into God,” and “Bumping Into God Again,” stories about finding God in unexpected places; “Still Called By Name” or “Why I Love Being a Priest,” and “Living the Mass” co-authored with Joseph Paprocki. “Bumping Into God in the Kitchen” has more stories, with family recipes, published in 2007.

Eclectic childhood: Grew up with three older brothers. His seven-year-old sister died of polio 10 months before he was born. “My parents were renting and the landlord kicked them out because they had too many children. My dad didn’t want us to grow up in an Italian ghetto, so he found a home that, before the Depression, had been a mansion. He bought it for like $12,000.” They renovated the top floor for rental income, and the boys grew up on the first two floors of a “rambling old house on Briar Place.” His pals were German, Irish, Jewish and Russian. “That influenced me over the years.”

The Store: “My parents took the loss of my sister hard. When I was born Dad threw himself into work. With my uncle he opened the fourth largest grocery store on the North Side, two blocks from Wrigley Field. Grassi Bros. Finer Foods was ahead of its time. You could call up, order and have it delivered, like Peapod today. The store taught me a sense of tolerance. We had African-American customers who worked in the nearby laundry. Everyone got the best we had to offer.” He carried that into the priesthood.

Fork in the road: “My brothers went to Quigley ahead of me. My oldest brother claimed I just wanted to imitate him. He bet me $25 I wouldn’t make it past third year. I waited until my ordination dinner to collect it before 250 guests.” Mr. Grassi retired. His sons chose other careers.

Role models: “I was surrounded by wonderful parish priests. Certainly Father Gene Faucher was the primary influence in my young life, Dan Brady, Marty Howard — the line-up at Mount Carmel Parish was incredible. My first inkling of priesthood was watching Gene Faucher preach. He made us laugh, cry and feel good.

Quigley, a school of experience: “In the apostolate program I worked at Cabrini Green, and at different parishes.” He sometimes wondered if it was what he wanted to do, and thought, “If I want to be a teacher or a social worker I can do that and more as a priest.” By the time he got to the major seminary he realized “The emerging theology of Vatican II was one thing — my personal piety was very much the peasant faith of my parents. I fell in love with people, the ability to be in their lives and the privilege it is to be a priest.”

Homily prep: “I utilize Jack Shea’s notion that there is ‘The Story’ (of salvation that comes to us in Scripture), then there is ‘my story,’ and the ‘parishioner’s story.’ My story has to touch their story so together we’re in touch with ‘The Story.’ By remembering the story, they’ll remember the point of the homily: God’s love. That’s a social justice message, it helps us deal with our environment, with issues of war and peace, immigration, violence and prejudice. It all ties together.”

Holy Week 2007: “Italians call those of us from the province of Bari in Italy hard-headed. Well, God bumped me hard.” The last service he did before being sidelined by an infection was washing the feet on Holy Thursday. “All of a sudden I was spending 29 days in the hospital.” Doctors said he had a 15 percent chance of surviving the infection, and they considered amputating his leg (it didn’t happen). “I couldn’t say an Our Father or Hail Mary in the hospital. All I could think of was Cardinal Bernardin’s book, where he wrote, ‘Pray a lot when you’re healthy, because it’s hard to pray when you’re sick.’”

Turning point: I went down for a MRI. All alone, I turned to my little sister who had died, and said, ‘Anna Marie, I need you, I can’t even turn to God. Help me get through this, please. I’ll be the priest you want me to be.’ Something opened up inside, and I was able to pray again!” The next day he started to get better. “When I say Mass now I feel incredibly blessed and everything else is secondary to that.”