Father Dominic Grassi knows the value of a good story. Shortly into his ministry, he noticed people were not really listening to his homilies. To get their attention he started telling stories. It worked.
He began studying the theology of stories and added stories into all his homilies. Before long, he was writing for a homily subscription service, then was asked to write his first book “Bumping into God: 35 Stories of Finding Grace in Unexpected Places.”
Nearly 20 years and several books later, the retired pastor has turned his love of storytelling into his first work of fiction, “Death in Chicago: Winter” — the first in a four-volume series of mysteries about the adventures of private detective Cosmo Grande, a former Chicago seminarian who was kicked out of the seminary for smoking pot.
It is published by locally based ACTA Publications, which has released other novels under its new imprint, In Extenso Press. The imprint features novels that use the Catholic Church as background for their stories, such as “Master of Ceremonies” by Father Donald Cozzens, a murder mystery set in the Archdiocese of Baltimore; and “Pistaco” by Lynn Monahan, a love story set in Peru during the Shining Path uprising there.
“‘Death in Chicago: Winter’ turned out to be a great yarn with lots of twists and fascinating characters that you fall in love with. The story is set in Chicago and has a rogue bishop, a chancellor of the archdiocese with ties to ‘the outfit,’ another former seminarian who became a South Side cop, the daughter of Cosmo’s former girlfriend, and a group of Catholic deacons who have formed a secret society to protect the church,” said Greg Pierce, president of ACTA Publications. “Oh, and there are three murders, one of which Cosmo was hired to investigate by the guy who was killed.”
Pierce calls the main character an “everyman.”
“If you don’t fall in love with Cosmo Grande you’re not breathing — or at least you’re not catholic with a small c,” he said. “And how can you not love a novel that starts out with a guy paying a private eye to investigate the guy’s murder — but only if and when it happens?”
Chicagoans, especially Catholics, will find familiar restaurants, landmarks and local traditions throughout the story.
Novels like “Death in Chicago” play a role in evangelization, Pierce said.
“I have been in Catholic book publishing for over 30 years, and I have learned that most laypeople are more interested in the world — including the world of literature — than they are in what goes on inside the church. We are all worried about how we are going to attract the non-church-goer, especially our young adults, to what the church has to offer,” Pierce said.
That includes what they are reading.
“They’re reading books all right, but not books about religion. They’re reading detective novels. So let’s write and publish some good ones for them,” he said.
Grassi, who was pastor for 18 years at St. Josaphat, 2311 N. Southport Ave., and 11 years at St. Gertrude, 1420 W. Granville Ave., wrote stories when he was younger but put it aside when he became a priest. He said he took on the challenge of writing in part because he was uncertain of what he would do in retirement.
Turns out he doesn’t miss being a pastor. Retirement has had “an incredible effect on my prayer life,” Grassi said. He gives regular spiritual direction to a half-dozen people and now he’s more focused on them and their needs.
Grassi taps into his own life experiences for his stories, especially the death of his sister Anna Marie, who died shortly before he was born. His sister was in second grade when she was diagnosed with polio. She died within a week of the diagnosis.
His mother’s hair turned white in the process. Grassi said he wished he could have been there to console his mother.
“Then I realized I was. She was pregnant with me. This is why I have such an affinity with my sister.”
When he gives missions and talks, Anna Marie often comes up. “I talk about her like we’re best friends, and we are.”
Grassi also often tells the story of his father, who hadn’t spoken in two years but before he died, sat up in bed, said his sister’s name twice, smiled, put his head down and died. A nurses’ aide witnessed it and shared the story.
“This is a nurse’s aide who didn’t even know who Anna Marie was,” he said. “These are the wonderful stories that become part of a priest’s life that you get to share and learn from and help people with.”
These are the stories that aid a priest’s ministry.
“When we had a youngster drown in the parish and another youngster die of a brain tumor, after all was said and done, I could sit down with the parents and just talk and try to convince them that their child will be there with them in the other world,” he said. “That’s the power of stories. That’s why I write.”
“Death in Chicago: Winter” ($16.95) is available through actapublications.com.
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