Former Bishop Donald Montrose dies

Former Stockton Diocese Bishop Donald Montrose, who brought many Spanish-speaking priests and a cloistered group of praying nuns to the diocese, died early Wednesday, a week shy of his 85th birthday.

"He was the most humble, spiritual man I think I've ever met," said Marie Gallo, who said she and her husband, Bob, considered the bishop a friend. "He knew the power of prayer was important for the diocese and the people."

Montrose served as the fourth bishop of Stockton from Feb. 20, 1986, until his retirement Jan. 18, 1999. He lived in a Stockton retirement community until about a week before his death, when he moved to a hospice facility after a hospital stay because of pneumonia.

He died on the 59th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.

"Bishop Montrose will be remembered for meeting the needs of Hispanics in this diocese in many ways, but particularly for bringing Spanish- speaking priests and sisters to this area," said Bishop Stephen Blaire, who succeeded Montrose.

"He was committed to having one Spanish-speaking priest in every parish where there were any Hispanic people, and he did that," added Sister Terry Davis, the diocese's director of communication.

Father Armando Vergara of St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Hughson already was in the diocese when Montrose arrived in Stockton.

"He went to Colombia and to Mexico and several other countries to see which bishop would grant priests to come over," said Vergara, a native of Colombia. But, he added, Montrose had a servant attitude toward all Catholics in the diocese, and took time to encourage his clergy.

"He was a real brother for the priests," Vergara said.

Body to be at convent Sunday

The former bishop was instrumental in bringing the cloistered Sisters of the Cross to Modesto from Mexico in 1988. His body will be at the sisters' convent on Maze Boulevard during the night Sunday so the sisters can pray for him and say their goodbyes.

"He has been one of the greatest benefactors here. He was like a father to our community, to all the sisters who have been here all these years," said Sister Adela Graciano, mother superior of the local order. "We are happy because we think he's already in heaven because he was a very holy man. We are sure he's enjoying his new life. ... It is really a gift for us, having this opportunity to have his body here so we can pray and be there with him."

Marie Gallo was involved in Montrose's efforts to bring the Sisters of the Cross to Modesto. He regularly visited her home and the convent, she said.

"It was difficult to convince everybody else that this (bringing the Sisters of the Cross) was the thing to do," she said. "He had a vision that nobody else could see. Luckily, we could see he was right.

"He heard when God spoke to him very clearly in the important things. He was not a political person at all, but he listened to God very clearly. We've lost a great spiritual leader."

Montrose was born May 13, 1923, in Denver. When he was about 11, his family moved to Southern California, where he attended Catholic schools and seminary.

He was ordained to the priesthood May 7, 1949, and served in various parishes and Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He was an auxiliary bishop for Los Angeles and served as the head of St. John's Seminary College before Pope John Paul II tapped him to become the Stockton Diocese bishop.

He followed the outspoken and charismatic Roger Mahony in that role.

"He had a great love and zeal for all people, but in a special way, for the poor and those who needed to be touched in the name of Jesus Christ," Mahony wrote Wednesday in an e-mail.

While Mahony focused on social-justice issues such as immigration, Montrose was known as a quiet, spiritual leader.

"When people recall the life of Bishop Montrose, they note his gentle spirit of humility, and those close to him always appreciated his sense of humor and storytelling," Blaire said in a statement. "He was a man of personal prayer and participated actively in the charismatic renewal movement."

Controversy arose in 1990s

But Montrose's service was not without controversy. In 1999, shortly before he retired at the mandatory age of 75, he graded his performance as mediocre after the diocese was hit by a series of lawsuits.

The most publicized was the molestation case two brothers filed in 1993 against then-priest Oliver Francis O'Grady, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison and has since admitted molesting several children. Montrose said at the time that he never had heard of pedophilia before the O'Grady case.

Two other cases, in 1992 and 1997, involved an assistant priest who successfully sued a Turlock priest and the diocese for slander and a priest accused of embezzling $76,000 in funds from the cathedral in Stockton.

Montrose also spoke of his failure to add more churches and priests as the diocese grew from 135,000 to 175,000 Catholics during his tenure. But he said he was leaving the diocese with a clear conscience and added, "I've been very fortunate to have been here. People have been very supportive and long- suffering."

Father Joseph Illo, pastor at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto, said Montrose's challenges of overseeing the church in the 1990s came in part because the church, and society, had changed so much from the church Montrose knew as he grew up in the 1940s and '50s.

"He ordained me in 1991, and so, of course, he's like a father to me in some ways," Illo said. "His strength was his fidelity to the priesthood, to Jesus Christ and the church. He loved to pray."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or snowicki@modbee.com.

DateEventLocationTimeSunday, May 11, 2008Reception of the body; visitation open to allOur Lady of Fatima, Modesto2 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.Sunday, May 11, 2008Funeral Vigil; open to allOur Lady of Fatima, Modesto7:30 p.m.Sunday, May 11, 2008Transferral of bodySisters of the Cross, ModestoAll night prayer vigil (private)Monday, May 12, 2008Reception of the body; visitation open to allCathedral of the Annunciation, Stockton10 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.Monday, May 12, 2008Funeral Liturgy; open to allCathedral of the Annunciation, Stockton1 p.m.Monday, May 12, 2008Burial; open to allSan Joaquin Catholic Cemetery, StocktonFollowing Mass