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Moonlight in London

By France Griggs Sloat

Since 1978, John LaRocca, S.J., has kept up with his good friend Gracie Finch. He’s read about her latest doings on his annual summer sojourns to London, where he moonlights as a parish priest in the immigrant working-class neighborhood of Holloway. In addition to baptizing babies, burying the dead, marrying the young and ministering to the members of Sacred Heart parish—things he never gets to do as Xavier’s history department chair—he also uses his time in the ancient city to research his favorite topic: the survival of Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries.

That’s where he got acquainted with Gracie, a wealthy landowner in the early 1600s who refused to renounce her Catholic faith and got away with it by agreeing to pay an annual tax. Gracie’s name and activities would pop up in the recusant tax rolls LaRocca peruses each summer at the London public records office. Fortunately for her, she was not drawn and quartered, which unfortunately was what awaited priests caught celebrating Mass during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James.

More recently, he was saddened to find an entry from 1631 in which Gracie’s son declares that his mother has died and that he won’t be paying the tax on her property because, unlike her, he had taken an oath of supremacy to the king.

“For years I had seen her name, and I would say, ‘Oh. It’s Gracie again’,” LaRocca said before departing for London last summer. “I knew all her lands and where she lived in London. I felt I had lost a friend.”

LaRocca, who also is director of the Honors Bachelor of Arts program, has made lots of other friends during his summers of service at the London parish. The people in the parish’s neighborhood routinely invite him into their homes and the local pubs. In turn, he helps those in need.

“One of the greatest joys of summer for me is going back to that parish. It touches places in the core of who I am … my first image of what it means to be a priest.”

His contacts there also led to the establishment of a residence hall for Xavier students studying abroad. The immigrant working-class Holloway, and especially its Irish, African, West Indian, Pakistani and Indian residents, offers a plethora of rich ethnic experiences for the Xavier students, while LaRocca offers them a link to the not-so-distant past.

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