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Protestant turned priest professor retires after 26 years at seminary

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Father Lee W. Gross, 76, has spent more years in seminary than most. First he studied at a Lutheran seminary, then at an Episcopal one, and finally he worked at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. Teaching seminarians has been a great joy, but this year he retired to the St. Rose of Lima Priests' Retirement Villa in Annandale.

“Little did I ever know that I would be (at Mount St. Mary) 26 years, just beyond my wildest imagination,” said Father Gross. “I loved the work there, I was very happy there. The time to retire has come but I will miss it very much.”

Father Gross was born in 1944 in Rapid City, S.D. His father’s service in the U.S. Air Force brought them to South Dakota, but he spent most of his childhood in Pennsylvania. Attending a youth group Bible study as a teen awakened his interest in ministry. After graduating from Hempfield High School in Landisville, Pa., in 1962, he enrolled at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. After earning his bachelor’s in 1966, he enrolled in Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg. He graduated with a master’s of divinity in 1970 and was ordained a Lutheran pastor that same year.

From 1970 to 1974, he served as pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church in Queens, N.Y. But he felt called to something else. “Even as a Lutheran pastor I was already leaning to a more Catholic expression,” he said. “I was afraid to make the jump the whole way so the Episcopal Church seemed like a good compromise.” In 1974, he joined the Episcopal Church and a year later he entered seminary. The following year, he was ordained an Episcopal priest.

Father Gross served in Illinois churches from 1976 to 1985 before entering into full communion with the Catholic Church in 1985. “I’m grateful for my background in the Lutheran Church. I’m grateful for my time in the Episcopal Church. I think both deepened my faith and my relationship with God,” he said. “But in each of them I felt there was something more, something missing and I certainly found that in the Catholic Church.”

Father Gross became a priest through the pastoral provision, a process instituted by Pope John Paul II in 1980 to enable Episcopal priests to become Catholic priests. The representative of the pastoral provision suggested he ask permission to be a priest in the Arlington diocese and, having already spent a year in the Washington area during his Lutheran pastoral formation, he agreed. He spent a year at St. Louis Church in Alexandria and another year at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester. He was ordained to the priesthood at Sacred Heart by Bishop John R. Keating April 3, 1987, just a week after he was ordained to the diaconate.

Father Gross served as parochial vicar of Sacred Heart (1987-91) and St. Agnes Church in Arlington (1991-95). While at St. Agnes, a priest friend asked Father Gross if he’d be interested in teaching in the seminary. He was very interested, but felt it was unlikely he would be able to teach considering he only had degrees from Protestant seminaries and never attended a Catholic seminary. “God has a divine sense of humor so he got me for 26 years in a Catholic seminary,” said Father Gross.

For a year he taught liturgy courses as an adjunct professor. In 1995, he took on a full-time administrative position at the seminary as dean of men, or head of student life. In 2003, Father Gross earned a degree in sacred theology from St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore and became an assistant professor of liturgy and systematic theology at Mount St. Mary's in addition to remaining dean of men.

Each Sunday for 15 years, Father Gross drove to Gaithersburg, Md., to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, or Mass, for the Byzantine Catholic Mission of Montgomery County, a mission of Epiphany of Our Lord Byzantine Catholic Church in Annandale. The community was in need of a priest and Father Gross always had found beauty in the Eastern-rite liturgy. So he spent months training with Father John Basarab, Epiphany pastor, and the Vatican granted him the faculties to celebrate the Byzantine rite.

Once a year, he celebrated the Divine Liturgy at the seminary. “The people from Epiphany would bring all the liturgical articles and some of the Byzantine priests would come concelebrate with me. We had a little choir that would learn the music,” he said. “It was a great experience for the students. They loved it.”

Looking back, Father Gross is grateful God brought him to the Catholic faith and that he was able to impact the lives of so many lay Catholics through the men he taught. “I love teaching and I enjoy the classroom, but it was more than just academic work. You’re preparing priests,” he said. “In a way, I feel like I’ve had something to do with quite a number of the Catholic faithful, that I’m helping to hopefully form good and holy priests.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021

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