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John Patrick Grace: Leader of John XXIII Center suddenly gone

Nov. 22, 2013 @ 10:00 AM

"The best-laid plans of mice 'n men," as Robert Burns so aptly put it, "gang aft aglay" (go oft astray). Deacon Gary Lane and his wife, Wilma, already had a condo on Lake Norman just above Charlotte, N.C., and plans to retire there after his service as director of the Blessed John XXIII Pastoral Center in Charleston wound down.

They were enjoying "life on the lake" on sundry long weekends when a bolt from the blue, a still-undiagnosed mysterious illness with flu-like symptoms and a fever that spiked to 108 degrees, bore Gary away to his eternal retirement home beyond the pale. He was 61.

"We're all still in shock," Monsignor Fred Annie, vicar general of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, said as he began his homily-eulogy of Deacon Gary's life and service to a wide, and ecumenical, community of sometime retreatants, conferees and random guests to John XXIIII. "He has been ripped from our lives." This to a packed house in the center's chapel in the round last Wednesday evening.

Deacon Gary, whom I count as a friend of 12-plus years standing, had done wonders with the center and for its thousands of guests over the years, most of whom came from a variety of Protestant churches. The Methodists, in fact, probably have held more daylong and weekend events there than any other denomination, from what I gather.

I would frequently stop by or be at the center overnight and hear black gospel melodies resonating in the chapel or women's groups rehearsing hymns from the Methodist hymnal or see Nazarenes or Baptists or Presbyterians or you-name-it meeting prayerfully in this corner or that or happily bent over plates full of the scrumptious breakfasts, lunches and suppers the center provided.

Without qualification, the John XXIII Center was the hub of ecumenical activity in West Virginia. And Deacon Gary was smack in the heart of it, the perfect host ever vigilant to the concerns of any individual or group that happened to be on the premises. He had a great staff and ran a tight ship.

His aesthetic touch was evident everywhere, both inside -- chapel, dining hall, meeting rooms, guest bedrooms -- and out on the rolling acres of lawns and flower beds and woods, ponds and hiking trails.

A retired Bluefield-area science teacher and school administrator, Gary Lane seemed to have the perfect background and personality to run John XXIII. He appreciated the value of creating an atmosphere of peaceful reflection for the benefit of church groups who sought respite from the hurly-burly of their towns and cities to seek God's wisdom for their ministries.

Beyond directing the center, Deacon Gary had two other ministerial roles that endeared him to many. He was the liaison to the bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston for the Catholic charismatic renewal in the state and a steady presence on the Pastoral Service Team on which I also have the privilege to serve. The PST plans and runs an annual conference each August, with nationally known guest speakers, and also sponsors Days of Spiritual Renewal at parishes throughout the state.

Bishop Michael Bransfield also had tasked Gary Lane with serving on the staff of St. Agnes Catholic Church in Kanawha City as a vital aide to its pastor, Father Christopher Turner. On my visits to St. Agnes, I would typically see Gary station himself in front of the altar after each Mass' closing and welcome individuals with "special needs" to come up to him for personal prayer. That was Gary Lane -- that's just the kind of guy he was, a right-hand man for Jesus Christ, his Lord.

John Patrick Grace formerly covered religion and health care for The Greensboro (N.C.) News and Record and served as Vatican correspondent for The Associated Press based in Rome. He currently is a book editor and publisher based in downtown Huntington.

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