Obituary: Msgr. Laurence W. McGrath, longtime seminary librarian
Generations of seminarians at St. John Seminary knew him and his library. Msgr. Laurence W. McGrath died at Regina Cleri in Boston's West End on Jan. 16, 2023. Born Oct. 21, 1931, he was one, and the last surviving, of the four children of the late Laurence and Gertrude (Mahoney) McGrath.
An alumnus of the seminary where he would later serve as librarian for 43 years, Father McGrath completed his seminary studies and Archbishop Richard J. Cushing ordained him to the priesthood at Holy Cross Cathedral on Feb. 2, 1957.
Following ordination and until his appointment to the seminary faculty in 1966, he was an assistant in five parishes: Blessed Sacrament, Saugus (1957-1962); St. Benedict, Somerville (1962); St. John the Evangelist, Wellesley (1962-1965); St. Elizabeth, Milton (1965); and Sacred Heart, East Boston (1965-1966). At Somerville, Wellesley, and East Boston, he was an assistant for pastors who were known for running a "tight ship." There was a running joke among priests that there was a revolving door at the three parishes when it came to lasting as an assistant. Sometimes it was a clash of personality, more often though, it was the "ruling" style of the respective pastors.
In 1966, he was named to the faculty of St. John Seminary, Brighton, and tasked with the opening and management of the then brand new seminary library. Probably no one, including Boston's archbishops, would argue that the library and its collection was "Larry's."
There are endless tales about his guarding the collection, constantly reminding students, faculty, and, yes, even the archbishop that "this is not a lending library." Two of these involve two archbishops, they are illustrative of his "management style" and yet his untiring willingness to assist serious users of "his" library.
At one point, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros called and asked if he could borrow a specific book; he needed it as a reference for some document on which he was working. "Your Eminence, this is not a lending library, so, NO! However, I have a personal copy of that book in my own library and I'd be happy to lend that to you." Larry tooketh away, and Larry gaveth.
The other involved Bernard Cardinal Law, who in 1998, had requested Pope St. John Paul II to name a number of priests of the archdiocese as Prelates of Honor with the title "Monsignor," among them was Father McGrath. At the luncheon and presentation of the documents to the priests, the cardinal handed Larry his nomination and asked, "Now, can I borrow a book from the library." Without a blink or a moment's hesitation, he said: "NO".
Those who were students at St. John's recall his amazing familiarity with the seminary collection. He could direct you to any section easily and unsurprisingly. What often amazed a student was when asked for a specific title Larry could give you directions to the floor, the row, the shelf, and the book's location on the shelf. So jealousy did he guard the building and the collection, and so omnipresent was he, that some averred that he actually slept there.
He was a no-nonsense man. He did not suffer fools, never mind gladly, he suffered them not at all. He could be brusque, even curt. Yet there are many priests who will tell you that he also was a sympathetic listener and offered sage advice when you went to him with a personal problem. He also had a very quick wit and delivered lines tersely but with an ever so slight twinkle in his eye, almost saying, "Bet you never thought I had a sense of humor."
He retired from the seminary faculty in July 2009 and lived initially in retirement in New Hampshire. In 2013, he moved into Regina Cleri, the archdiocesan residence for senior priests. Some of the priests there, who had been students at Brighton, commented on how uncharacteristically talkative he had become. One former student summed it up, "I spoke more with him at lunch in one day than I had in eight years in the seminary."
Msgr. McGrath's funeral Mass was celebrated Jan. 24 at St. Joseph Church in Boston's West End. Father Robert Murray, pastor of Mary Queen of the Apostles Parish, Salem, was the principal celebrant of Msgr. McGrath's funeral Mass.
Following the funeral Mass, Msgr. McGrath was buried in the McGrath family lot at Holy Cross Cemetery, Malden.