(Photo by Valerie Schmalz/Catholic San Francisco)
Deacon John McGhee, World War II veteran and widowed father of seven children, stepped down last August after 20 years as deacon at Our Lady of Refuge Mission church in La Honda. He is pictured with his daughter Catharine McGhee Staal.
Former WWII Marine gunner retires as rural deacon at 89
July 12th, 2016
By Valerie Schmalz
It was not until a few months shy of his 90th birthday that ill health finally forced Deacon John McGhee, World War II veteran and widowed father of seven children, to step down last August after 20 years as deacon at Our Lady of Refuge Mission church in La Honda, south of Half Moon Bay.
As a rural deacon in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is dominated by a much more urban lifestyle, he was a rare treasure, the director of diaconate ministry for the Archdiocese of San Francisco says.
“As a rural community, they are cut off. He supplied so many of their needs,” said Deacon Mike Ghiorso, director of Permanent Diaconal Ministry and Life.
In the three counties of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Our Lady of the Pillar parish is the largest parish geographically and one of the most remote. Our Lady of Refuge is 19 miles south and east of the coastal church – a windblown often foggy and chilly outpost along the Northern California coast.
“He just lovingly knew everything about La Honda, its people – total outreach to the people, to all of the people,” not just the Catholics, said Angela Mansfield, a parishioner who has known Deacon McGhee since shortly after the family’s arrival in 1974 with plans to start a KOA campground. “He was always thinking of ways to reach out to the community.”
Deacon McGhee visited the often far-scattered sick, presided over funeral services, baptized babies, and also helped at the main church, Our Lady of the Pillar, as well as working closely with the St. Vincent de Paul Society to distribute food until just recently. He visited the boys assigned by the courts to the boys’ ranch in La Honda.
By the time John and Rosemary McGhee arrived in San Gregorio, they had served as lay missionaries building houses and schools in Ecuador, Los Angeles and Illinois. They had adopted seven children, and he was working as a union electrician and had earned a Master of Applied Theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
John McGhee applied to be a deacon in 1990, when the Archdiocese of San Francisco was closing churches and Our Lady of Refuge was in jeopardy. “I thought if Our Lady of Refuge had a deacon, the church might not be closed,” he said. Archbishop John Quinn ordained McGhee to the permanent diaconate Feb. 25, 1995.
Deacon McGhee repaired the church, fixed the wiring and the plumbing, and made sure the landscape was kept up, said Mary Bordi, who said now that Deacon McGhee is no longer able, she and other parishioners realize even more thoroughly how much he did. “For years he dressed up as Santa Claus for the church, so they would come to the hall,” said Deacon Ghiorso.
When his wife died in 2006, Deacon McGhee barely slowed – the need seemed too great to him, his daughter Catharine McGhee Staal recalled. “Dad was doing tons of funerals at the time. He became so popular that people would approach me that I didn’t even know (telling me) ‘Your dad gave such a nice funeral for my grandmother, my grandfather.’”
The McGhees had purchased 54 acres to open a KOA family campground. Zoning issues killed the plan and they sold all but 11 acres. For a while the family lived in three trailers, connected by wooden boardwalks. McGhee commuted to San Jose, working as an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers electrician until he retired in 1987.
“My mom was a convert,” said Staal, who said when she was young her mother was quarantined with a bad case of tuberculosis in a Catholic institution. “The nuns were talking to her about becoming baptized. She wasn’t sure she was going to make it, and that’s when she converted. And she converted all the way! You couldn’t get more Catholic than mom!”
John and Rosemary married in 1954. First they adopted Justine, a Nicaraguan orphan in Los Angeles, then Hugo, a 15-year-old orphan living abandoned on the streets of Quito, Ecuador. The rest followed soon after, with four children adopted from Catholic Charities while the family was in Peoria, Illinois. At one point, there were four children under 5, said McGhee. “Adopting multiracial or bi-racially in the early ‘60s was not heard of. People really looked down on that at the time,” Staal said.
The children grew up in San Gregorio. “We were doing the whole sustainable thing before it was cool. We had everything – chicken, cows, and horses and pigs. Rabbits, you name it. We had two donkeys, Jenny and Geraldine,” said Staal, who with her husband and three children, lives downstairs from her father in a house he built.
“Deacon John is a treasure for our parish and for the church,” said Father Joseph Previtali, administrator at Our Lady of the Pillar. Lorraine Moriarty, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Mateo, who has known the McGhees for 25 years, called them both “role models” and “a wonderful couple.”
Today Deacon McGhee is slower. He has had five strokes through the years, and had already had a massive heart attack in 1988 – before he even entered the diaconate program in 1990. Then in August, his health got much worse, with cancer flaring up, and he retired.
Always a Marine, Deacon McGhee attended the outdoor Mass in May for Memorial Day at Our Lady of the Pillar Cemetery, in a wheelchair and wearing a World War II veterans cap. That Marines connection circled around unexpectedly a couple years ago. Staal reached out to find her birth mother, and the two discovered she had been a Marine too. Her birth mother told Staal she always prayed her daughter was with a good family. “She was really bummed out Mom was not still around. She said your dad is absolutely my saint. She is so grateful,” Staal said.
When she visits, she goes to Mass at Our Lady of Refuge Mission with the family. “She’s a Marine! She always says ‘Semper Fi’ to Dad!”
From July 14, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.