After returning to St. Mary's in Lee, Rev. Brian McGrath celebrates 25 years in priesthood

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LEE — The Rev. Brian McGrath has a special relation with Mary, mother of Jesus.

The Eastern Massachusetts native's second assignment was associate pastor at St. Mary's Church in Lee (1996-1998) followed by his first of four straight pastoral roles, starting at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Orange (1998-2002). He was then reassigned to St. Mary's Parish of Westfield (2002-2015) for his longest stint within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

After a year as pastor at St. John the Evangelist Church in Agawam, McGrath returned to Lee a year ago on Sept. 1, succeeding the Rev. John "Jack" Sheaffer who moved on to a Belchertown parish. McGrath, 55, was thrilled to be leading a parish and community he fell in love with 20 years ago.

"This is the salt of the earth — real faithful, quality people," he told an Eagle reporter during an interview at St. Mary's rectory.

Parishioners have embraced McGrath's comeback. Their enthusiasm was evident in how they packed the church on Sunday and at the subsequent standing-room-only reception at St. Mary's School to mark the 25th anniversary of the one-time chemistry teacher's ordination.

Hundreds of church members, family and friends lined up to congratulate McGrath, including Roger Scheurer, a parishioner since 1981. Back then, McGrath was a student on his way to earning a biochemistry degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"He has great interest in the school, the kids and exposing the faith to you," Scheurer said. "He's not just focused on the spiritual aspect of being a pastor, but the physical needs of the parish, too."

In lieu of gifts, McGrath asked guests to donate toward the improvements of the rectory. Over the summer, the crumbling paved parking area and sidewalk at the school was ripped up, rebuilt and resurfaced creating a safer, more aesthetically pleasing entrance to the Pre-K through 8th grade school. St. Mary's is one of the three parochial schools left in Berkshire County and a big reason McGrath is thrilled to be pastor of the parish.

"I've never had a chance to go to catholic school. Lee is a school of generations, a big part of the community," he said.

McGrath's fondness and devotion to the St. Mary's children is regularly on display, according to school secretary Linda Winters.

"He interacts with the kids, knows many by their first names. he's here almost every day at the start of school," she said.

McGrath's affinity for education began in 1985 when her got his masters in education and went on to teach high-schoolers in West Newbury and Rockland. The transformation to a more spiritual career is rooted in the 13 months (1986-87) he spent at Covenant House in the Hell's Kitchen section of New York City and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Covenant House is the largest privately funded agency in the Americas providing shelter, food, immediate crisis care, and an array of other services to homeless and runaway youth, according to the organization's website.

"I think throughout my life I heard the call [to the priesthood,] but there is where the call was the strongest," he said.

The priest-to-be would enter St. John's Seminary in Brighton and study in Rome for the next five years before being ordained Sept. 12, 1992.

His first full-time assignment was a Holy Cross Parish in Springfield from 1993-1996 before starting his string of St. Mary's missions.

Throughout the 25-year priesthood, McGrath has balanced his personal life with his spiritual one, according to one of his six siblings, Patrick McGrath.

"He's real compassionate. He's all about family; not just blood, but the [parish] family he brings together," said the younger brother.

McGrath relies on his small, dedicated staff as well as active church members to keep the parish vibrant as he lacks an associate pastor, despite also having under his jurisdiction St. Mary of the Lakes in Otis and St. Joseph's Church in Stockbridge.

"He's strong willed, but has learned to delegate," Scheurer noted. "It's rewarding to parishioners to be involved in church activities."

Often, parishioners' only contact with their parish priest is weekly Mass. Behind the scenes McGrath's duties include officiating at funerals and weddings, visiting the homebound and sick, keeping tabs on the church finances and, of course, his presence in the school.

"The days may be long, but the years fly by," he said.

Reach staff writer Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233


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