Mott Haven-raised priest fought for immigrants’ rights
Father John Grange, the longtime pastor at St. Jerome’s church on Alexander Avenue, is dead after losing his battle with cancer. He died at Calvary Hospital in Morris Park on Oct. 17. Funeral Mass was held on Oct. 22 at St. Jerome’s.
Grange was well known around Mott Haven as an unflinching advocate for residents, and for its large immigrant community.
“The hallmark of his priesthood was his devotion to the parish,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York. “The two became synonymous.”
At St. Jerome’s Rectory next to the church with his three young children, Adilio Chavarria, 32, a parishioner at St. Jerome since arriving in Mott Haven from Guatemala in 1999, said Father Grange turned his life around. Chavarria said Grange was devoted to helping him and other young men in the youth group that met regularly at the church, many of whom had problems stemming from drug and alcohol abuse. There were no communication barriers because Father Grange’s Spanish was flawless, he said.
When the Archdiocese transferred Father Grange to St. Athanasius Church in Longwood five years ago, the priest was “depressed, despondent. When he told us he was being transferred, he said his coffin was here,” said Chavarria, pointing to the stairwell leading to the basement of the rectory.
Juana Garcia, 49, received the news of the priest’s death with dismay. She came to Mott Haven from Mexico in 1988 and was instantly struck by her pastor’s playful sense of humor when she began going to Mass at St. Jerome.
“He was a joker. He had charisma,” she said. “He would say to us at Mass, ‘I know you’re in a hurry, I know you all want to go, but I have something to say.’ Then he knew he had our attention; he would give his sermon and we were all listening. Then he would finish and tell us ‘Ok, now get out of here.’”
John Grange was born in the Bronx in 1940 and attended St. Jerome’s School as a child. He was ordained as a priest in 1966 and returned to St. Jerome as an associate pastor before becoming pastor in 1982.
In an interview with archivists for the Ireland House History Collection in 2009, Grange recalled that “Around 1950 there was a big, big infusion of Puerto Ricans in our neighborhood. And I got to know some of them, and the priests that I admired were working with them, you know and they went to learn Spanish.”
Grange was sent to learn Spanish in an immersion program in Ponce, Puerto Rico after his ordination. It came in handy again decades later when the wave of Mexican immigration to Mott Haven began.
“It was a very poor parish, it was kind of run down and falling apart,” Grange recalled. “I said where can people live around here? Because we had just gone through the burn outs. The Mexicans did it by living a family in a room. If they had five rooms, they had five families. Very, very hard-working people.”
In the late 1990s, Grange persuaded the Archdiocese to secure funding to renovate the church rather than shut it down as it had been considering. The HANDS Community Center opened in the church basement in 2000, and remains a key social service provider for Mott Haven’s immigrants.
In the memorial sermon on Oct. 22, Father Greg Lyttle, who was friends with Grange for decades, said Grange’s devotion to his parishioners made him appear distracted in other matters. He said that on one occasion when they were slated to meet at an upscale restaurant, Grange showed up wearing a torn nylon coat mended with duct tape.
“He didn’t return phone calls. He did not know how to access the answering device on his cell phone,” said Lyttle, explaining that his friend was “busy with other things. He had reason to be distracted because he was in court or in one of these buildings,” advocating for embattled tenants.
With an ecumenical organization called South Bronx churches, Grange and other activists fought to build housing for thousands of low-income residents.
State Senator Joseph Serrano Jr., who represents Mott Haven, attended St. Jerome’s school as a child. He held up a faded photo of himself as a child alongside Father Grange in the 1970s at St. Jerome’s.
“He taught us all to think outside the box,” recalled Serrano. When he told the packed church that his father, Congressman Jose E. Serrano, called Grange “not only the best Irish-American priest, but the best Puerto Rican priest and the best Dominican priest that the South Bronx has ever had,” the largely Latino crowd erupted in applause.
Father Grange’s last assignment was at Church of Guadalupe in Manhattan.