Gratto, Father Leon

1959, August 6

Date of Birth: 1900, September 20

January 15, 1960

My dear Confreres:

Father Wagner, Superior of St. Patrick’s Seminary in San Francisco, has kindly sent to me the notice which he issued on the life of Father Robert Leon Gratto. I send on to you a slightly abridged translation:

“Robert Leon Gratto was born in San Francisco on September 20, 1900. He was the sixth of seven children, and he was strongly influenced by the happy family atmosphere in which he lived. In his last years he liked to recount the memory of trips on San Francisco Bay with his older brothers who owned a sailboat.

“His mother was deeply religious. It was to her that Leon owed his great piety. But it seems that his vocation was awakened by one of the nuns in the school he attended. This Sister Mary Christina herself asked Mrs. Gratto for permission for her son to enter the seminary, for the boy was afraid to broach the subject. He feared it would annoy his mother. But there was another reason: the idea of leaving home was hard to imagine.

“In spite of his regret, he entered St. Patrick’s Seminary in 1914. Soon his shyness and his loneliness disappeared. His personality so developed that later, at alumni reunions, the events most freely called to mind were those in which he had played the leading role. His name routinely crops up in all the honors’ lists of the period, evidence of his application and his success. His beautiful tenor voice was acclaimed, and the Choirmaster, Father Marcetteau, knew how to make advantageous use of it in the chapel. But his classmates prized it, too, in less formal gatherings.

“In the spring of 1919 he entered Philosophy at St. Patrick’s Seminary, where he continued to distinguish himself in his studies. While there, he developed a very lively taste for Philosophy, a subject which became his lifelong interest. It was at that time, under the prompting and by the grace of Father Ayrinhac’s and Father Redon’s example, that his Sulpician vocation was born. After he finished his Theology in Washington, he was ordained priest in the San Francisco Cathedral on June 20, 1925. He spent the following year at the old Solitude in Catonsville, and was appointed teacher of Philosophy at St. Patrick’s in September 1926. There he passed his whole Sulpician life with the exception of two short absences.

“He brought to his classes an engaging enthusiasm along with a deep and extensive knowledge of his subject. His method was to pour out on his students, in as lively a manner as possible, an avalanche of ideas. Perhaps he was not always as clear as a patient and methodical teacher would have been, but he was very interesting, and the large outlines of problems and their solutions remained etched in the minds of his hearers. He knew how to give them a taste for reading and personal work. His corrections were numerous and lengthy, and his class was often given over to the reading of and discussion about [philosophers’] writings.

“He gave much of his time to direction, and his penitents knew how to profit from his generosity in this matter. As sometimes happens with those who have difficulty in resolving their own doubts, he resolved those of others in a penetrating and decisive manner. To all these gifts he added a great wealth of doctrine flowing from his personal fidelity to spiritual reading.

“Endowed with a deep and melodious voice, he was made Choirmaster in 1936, when Father Ouvrard resigned that job. He devoted himself to it whole-heartedly. Each year the priests impatiently awaited the Feast of the Presentation, asking themselves what the music would be like. But he gave his all in the Easter Sunday Pontifical Mass at which the seminary provided the music.

“Father Gratto loved community life. As a young priest he played ball with the seminarians. Later, he spent most of his recreations chopping wood, half the time stopping to chat with the groups which gathered around him. With his confreres he played billiards, hitting the ball with all his might. He was reported to give this reason: ‘The more speed a ball has, the faster it moves and the more chance it has of striking the others.’

“His activity was not limited to the seminary. He enjoyed discussing Philosophy with two professors from Stanford University who became regular visitors in the house. He exercised a quiet and wholesome influence on them and profited greatly from being in contact with them. He was strict with himself about being present at meetings of the Catholic Philosophical Society and brought to the professors and other laymen who attended the benefit of his knowledge and experience.

“During vacations he preached retreats and days of recollection to nuns. His reputation grew so much, and he was so generous in agreeing to this work that his vacations finished by being given over entirely to this ministry. His devotion cost him dear. After a summer spent in Hawaii in uninterrupted retreat-giving, he fell into a serious nervous depression which forced him to take a rest. The nuns who made the retreats drew great benefit from them. One of them ventured to characterize him with this remark: ‘He had a man’s strength, a mother’s gentleness, and a child’s simplicity.’

“In February 1954, Father Gratto had to give up all work, and was sent to a nursing home first, then to his brother’s, to rest. The treatment he took bettered his condition so much that in the fall of 1955 – at the pastor’s invitation – he moved into St. Monica’s rectory where he was able to help out a little. He instructed engaged couples, preached, and visited the sick. He was even able to give a spiritual retreat to the Brothers of the parish school.

“During the summer of 1956, the Sisters of St. Joseph offered him the post of Spiritual Director of their postulants and novices in their motherhouse in Orange, California. He was happy to accept their offer, and he filled his position successfully.

“He always hoped to be able to resume his place in the seminary, but his health was not sufficiently robust to let him do so. From time to time he made a short stay at St. Patrick’s, enthusiastically welcomed by all. He realized with a certain sadness that the time for his permanent return had not come, and he returned to Orange. He suffered there from not being able to devote himself to a real Sulpician ministry. He had, however, a little priestly work – according to his own expression, ‘a bone thrown to a dog.’

“His condition worsened in 1957, and the cross of his illness became heavier. He had to undergo a first operation on his intestines in June 1958, and a second in June 1959. While he was recuperating, he ventured the trip to San Francisco to see all his friends again. But two days after his coming, he suddenly died in St. Anselm’s rectory on August 6, 1959.

“His funeral was held in the San Francisco Cathedral where he had been ordained. He rests in Holy Cross Cemetery alongside Sulpicians who went before him into Eternity.”

I recommend Father Gratto’s soul to your prayers, and I renew to you the assurance of my affectionate sentiments in Our Lord and Our Lady.

Pierre Girard, S.S.

Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice