In a eulogy for John Steven McGroarty, delivered on the floor of the United States House of Representatives, Congressman Jerry Voorhis said that “no man has caught the spirit of California from the beginning. .. of the Spanish padres down to the present time and gathered it together into one continuous thread such as this great man has done.”
John Steven McGroarty was born near Wilkes-Barre, in Foster Township, Pennsylvania, on August 20, 1862, just a month before the issuance of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. He took great pride in his ancestry and often recalled that the McGroartys of Donegal were kinsmen of Columbkille. John’s father, Hugh McGroarty, was a grand-nephew of Richard Montgomery, one of George Washington’s generals who died in the ill-fated Quebec Expedition of 1776.
Upon completion of elementary courses in the parochial and public schools of WilkesBarre, John taught for two years. As soon as he was financially solvent, he completed his education at the Harry Hillman Academy. His erudition and native talents won for young McGroarty a teacher’s credential before he had reached his seventeenth birthday. Following his graduation from the Hillman Academy, where he took advanced studies in journalism, John joined the staff of the Wilkes-Barre Evening Leader, and quickly advanced to the managing editorship.
On November 19, 1890, shortly after a successful campaign for Treasurer of Luzerne County, John married his childhood sweetheart, Ida Caroline Lubrecht (1866-1940). Three years later, he became, again by popular suffrage, Justice of the Peace, the youngest man ever to occupy that post in Pennysylvania. It was also in 1893, that the thirty-one year old McGroarty began reading law. He was admitted to the State Bar in 1894. Just before the turn of the century, the McGroartys journeyed to Butte, Montana, where John served on the legal staff of the nation’s “Copper King,” Marcus Daly, at the Anaconda Mining Company. McGroarty neither excelled in nor cared for the legal profession, and upon Daly’s death, he resumed his journalistic career.
When, in 1901, John was offered employment with the San Francisco Chronicle, the McGroartys decided to dispose of their possessions and begin life anew in faraway California. Providentially, they stopped enroute in Los Angeles, just at the time that Friedrich Alfred Krupp, the munitionsmaker, had passed away. John expressed his reactions to that event in verse and, at the insistence of his wife, he submitted the poem to the city editor of the Los Angeles Times. Those poetic lines, which proved to be the changing point in his life, appeared in the next day’s edition of the paper:
Dead! and the belching thunder
Of the guns on sea and shore
Though they rend the world asunder,
Can break on his ears no more.
Forth from his hands he sent them,
Wherever men met as foes;
And wherever strong hands unbent them,
The cry of the wounded rose.
The groans of the maimed and dying,
The moans of the ebbing heart
On the fields of the dead, low lying,
Were praise of his master art.
Wherever the ocean’s billows
The ships of the fleet have sped,
Deep over the coral pillows,
Where the wild seas keep their dead.
Wherever, in rush or rally,
Man crashed in the strife with man.
In Paardeberg’s war-strewn valley,
Or the red heights of Sedan.
Death and blood and disaster
Spoke his great name in dread;
And now in his shroud, the master
That fashioned the guns, lies dead.
The day after the poem appeared, General Harrison Gray Otis summoned the surprised McGroarty to his office and offered him a permanent position on the editorial staff of The Times.Though his political views differed widely from those of his publisher, John Steven McGroarty became the “whitehaired boy” of The Times. During most of his more than forty years of association with that newspaper, he wrote a daily column “From the Green Verdugo Hills.”
Always a dedicated man of principles, McGroarty considered journalism among the most vital and necessary forces within society. He once noted that in a newspaper, “there is a dignity which is its grandeur; the sincerity which is its truth; the thoroughness which is its massive substance; the sterling principle which is its force; the virtue which is its purity; the scholarship, mind, humor, taste, versatile aptitude of simulation and beautiful grace of method which are its powerful and delightful faculties and attributes.”
Late in 1904, shortly after purchasing The Tidings and making it the official Catholic newspaper for the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles, Bishop Thomas J. Conaty offered the editorship to McGroarty. The journalist declined the position, telling the bishop that “Catholic journalists could do more for their religion as contributors to secular papers.”
Demanding as he made it, journalism failed to exhaust McGroarty’s potential and his manifold talents found abundant expression in a host of other literary enterprises. Timely articles under his signature began appearing in such prominent journals as The Southwest Magazine. Between 1906 and 1914, John edited the West Coast Magazine for the Grafton Publishing Company. In addition to an impressive array of historical and poetical publications, the industrious McGroarty composed numerous promotional books and magazines, some of which are now highly-prized “fugitives” among collectors and librarians of Western Americana.
Though his volume California, Its History and Romance went through ten editions in only thirteen years, McGroarty was not and never claimed to be a serious historian or an original scholar. His style was “folksy” and concentrated on the pageantry and glamor associated with the discovery, colonization and early development of the far west.
It was beneath the shadow of the cross erected in memory of Fray Junipero Serra, atop Mount Rubidoux, that McGroarty thought out and set to words his immortal Mission Play, in 1912. That fascinating portrayal about the inauguration of Christianity on the western shores of America was, according to Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, a classical blending of historical accuracy with dramatic imagination. It went through 3,268 performances and was seen by more than 200,000 persons. The acid-tongued Lady Gregory, co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, saw the play and remarked that it was “the only thing I have seen in America worth remembering!”
In 1923, John and Ida built their home, Rancho Chupa Rosa, in the solitude of the Verdugo Hills. Characteristically, McGroarty hung three portraits in his study, bearing the likenesses of Bishop John J. Cantwell, George Washington and Robert Louis Stevenson. “Those pictures,” he once said, “symbolize my ideals of the spiritual and political and literary.”
McGroarty long harbored plans for establishing, for his own century, a missionary outpost patterned after those of the Franciscan friars in earlier times. His “twenty-second” mission was to have been located in a glen at the foot of the Verdugos. Developer N. V. Hartranft set aside an acre of Oak Grove Park as the site of the proposed foundation and announced plans for its construction in the Tujunga Record-Ledger, in 1923.
In its tenth anniversary edition, the newspaper proclaimed that “the plan of the author of the Mission Play to add a new Franciscan mission to the great chain that was founded by Fray Junipero Serra and his brown-robed priests and to build it this summer at Tujunga may be properly classed as a non-sectarian project, for men and women of all creeds and faiths are rallying to his aid with offers of assistance.” The account went on to say that “the ceremonies attending its founding will be a reproduction of the great and colorful pageants that marked the founding of the old missions in the days of the Spanish occupation.”
For reasons yet-to-be-explored, the high hopes and elaborate plans for San Juan Evangelista, once envisioned as the capstone of the California missions, never materialized. Had things gone differently, the entire economic, cultural and social climate of the Valley very likely would have been changed, no doubt for the better.
In 1934, McGroarty decided that he could more effectively serve the general public, whose poet laureate he had been since May 15, 1933, in the legislative halls of the nation’s capital. Running as a Townsendite Democrat, McGroarty handily won election to the 74th and 75th Congress, for California’s eleventh district. For a brief moment, McGroarty cast a fond glance at the White House. According to a news-story in the Los Angeles Times, McGroarty “tossed his fedora in the ring” as a full-fledged candidate for the United States Presidency, on February 15, 1936, as a candidate for the Townsendite Party.
California’s poet laureate served in the House of Representatives from 1935 to 1939, when he retired from public service. At the time of McGroarty’s departure from Washington, John E. King, editor of the Hemet News lauded him “as author of the Mission Play, as friend and comforter to the Indians, as almoner to the weak and weary of every race and clime, as friend and guide to the oppressed and the downtrodden.” King went on to say that “we think of his work in the halls of Congress; of his efforts for the silent masses of the downcast and discouraged, too often without a friend in the courts of the mighty. In all his varied labors he has given the strength of a great enthusiasm, the charm of a great idealism. From his endeavors has come little of material wealth, but in the hearts of his countrymen there is the gold of love and esteem, of sincere appreciation.”
The retired Congressman returned to the Verdugo Hills, where he rejoiced at being “alive and well from aches and pains, busy with the day’s work, still fit to earn a living, and no fault to find with the way Fate has dealt with me.”
John Steven McGroarty was honored many times during his long life. He was especially pleased when Pope Pius XI created him a Knight of Saint George in recognition of his editorial campaigns to restore the Golden State’s missionary foundations. King Alfonso XIII of Spain also cited McGroarty for that work, naming him a Commander of Isabela Catolica.
The esteemed California author, poet, lawyer, statesman, educator, dramatist and journalist went home to God on August 7, 1944. The night before he died, the ever-gracious McGroarty answered a query about his health in the lines of his last poem:
When I have had my little day,
My chance at toil, my fling at play,
And in the starry silence fall
With broken staff against the wall,
May someone pass, God grant, that way,
And, as he bends above me, say:
Goodnight, dear comrade, sleep you well,
Deep are the daisies where you fell,
I fold your empty hands that shared
Their little all with them that fared
Beside you in the rain and sun—
Goodnight, your little day is done.
Though he belonged to all of California, John Steven McGroarty exhibited a discernible proclivity to San Diego. In a special, undated issue of The Kingdom of the Sun, ,a beautifully-illustrated quarterly magazine published by Lillian D. Gregory of Oro Grande, McGroarty described the city as “the Place of First Things, where California began.”
In his long essay, prepared especially for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, McGroarty declared that it is no “wonder that San Diego lures the wanderer and the traveler from every land, as well by the charm of her wondrous beauty and her gateways to opportunity as by the glamor and fascination of a past rich in romance as a lover’s dream. For it was upon the glinting waters of San Diego’s Harbor of the Sun, and upon her shining hills, that our California of today drew its first breath of life and ventured its first uncertain footstep on the long road to power and fame and greatness.”
He concluded his treatise with the prediction that “in the days to come-and that are coming thick and fast-San Diego will rank among the great cities of the world; no doubt of that. God made much land and still more sea, but He did not make many harbors that man can use handily. And when the engineer draws his calipers upon the maps it is seen that what harbors there are have been placed where they ought to be.”
And now as time advances the work of man to meet his needs, the Bay of San Diego comes to its own. Behind it lie the fertile hills, the great plains and the limitless desert made opulent by the irrigation ditch and canal. From these, even now, come teeming the wealth of farm and orchard and forest to find outlet and the waiting barter on the shores of the great ocean. Where rail and sail meet is the gateway of San Diego. The day when she depended on men to make her great is past, and the day has come when men depend on her to make them great.
The San Diego of tomorrow will be a place of crowding domes that will stretch upon the wide-flung uplands everywhere that the eye can see. Ships shall come and go ceaselessly into her wondrous harbor, and she shall match the glory of Carthage and of Tyre that was of old.
Then, as now, men will journey far across many lands and many waters to look upon her beauty. Then, as now, men will come to her for peace or gain, each as his needs may be. Nor shall her beauty fade or her glory vanish. What she has wrought and what she has won shall still be hers through all the centuries to be-the place where Padre Serra knelt; the Place of First Things that guards the Harbor of the Sun.
California. Its History and Romance (Los Angeles: Grafton Publishing Company, 1924). Originally published in 1911, this popular treatise went through many editions.
California of the South. A History (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1933). 5 vols. Presents the story of “a conquered desert, of an arid land, immemorially desolate, yet with a wild beauty, that was made to bloom and emerge from age-old loneliness to life and gladness.”
The California Plutarch (Los Angeles: J. R. Finnell, c. 1935). This portrayal of the great figures of the historic past, together with those who followed in their footsteps, was the first in a projected but never completed series.
The Endless Miracle of California (Chula Vista: Denrich Press, c. 1922). An essay on Rancho Santa Fe. Five Wander Songs (South Pasadena: W. A. Abbott, 1918). A collection of poetic verses.
Fresno County (Fresno: Fresno County Expositions Commission, 1915). An expository essay on the geographical hub of the Golden State.
History ofLos Angeles County (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1923). 3 vols. To the initial volume, devoted to a complete history and description of the area, are added two strictly biographical tomes.
“Just California” and Other Poems (Los Angeles: The Times-Mirror Press, 1933). A popular collection of the author’s verses.
Just California and Songs Along the Way (Los Angeles: The Times-Mirror Company, 1903). A volume of the author’s essays “from memory’s crowded closet-place.”
The King’s Highway (Los Angeles: The Grafton Publishing Co., 1909). A poem graphically illustrated by Langdon Smith.
The Life Story of Fred Lind Alles (Los Angeles, 1938). This short essay is excerpted from The California Plutarch, q.v..
Little Flowers of Saint Francis (Los Angeles: The U. S. Library Association, Inc., c. 1932). Translated from the Italian, this work is handsomely illustrated by Al. Wach.
Los Angeles-A Maritime City (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, 1912). This equation of the city’s development to its seaway and railroad communications was prepared with the assistance of Edwin Schallert.
Los Angeles from the Mountains to the Sea (Los Angeles: The American Historical Society, 1921). 2 vols. The first of these volumes is devoted to an historical treatise, while the second contains selected biographies of witnesses to the period of growth and achievement. A few copies of a “Special limited edition” omit the historical section in Volume I in favor of 200 biographies.
The Mass (Los Angeles: Michael J. O’Halloran Publishing Co., 1932). This layman’s appreciation gives ample evidence of the faith which illuminated the author’s life.
Mission Memories (Los Angeles: Neuner Corporation, 1929). An attractively-prepared book by California’s poet laureate with twenty-two pages of handsome illustrations by the talented Frederick V. Carpenter.
The Pioneer (Los Angeles: Press Publishing Co., 1925). An essay on Herman W. and Isaias William Hellman.
Poets and Poetry of Wyoming Valley (Wilkes-Barre: R. Lambert, 1886). A selection of forty-eight “samples” from the poetical literature of the area.
Santa Barbara California(N.p., 1925). A history of the Channel City illustrated with photographs by Samuel Adelstein.
Silver Jubilee All Souls Parish (Los Angeles: Denton’s, 1938). California’s poet laureate reflects on parochial activities in the suburb of Alhambra.
Southern California (San Diego: Southern California Panama Expositions Commission, 1914). Historical sketches of Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties.
The Story of the Missions (South Pasadena: Walter A. Abbott, 1918). A minuscule portrayal of the famous California frontier outposts reprinted from the author’s California. Its History and Romance, q. v.
The Vale of Monte Vista (Los Angeles, 1910). This reflection of a visit to Monte Vista State Park was excerpted from West Coast Magazine VII (August, 1910), 373-378.
The Valley of Our Lady (Los Angeles, 1909). This romantic history of Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley is reproduced as a reprint from the West Coast Magazine VI (July, 1909), 3-19.
Wander Songs (Los Angeles: Grafton Publishing Company, 1908). A moving volume dedicated to the author’s mother “from whose heart of song these rhymes are but the echoes.”
A Year and A Day; Westwood Village, Westwood Hills (Los Angeles: Westwood Hills Press, 193-?). A promotional essay on a now-prominent suburban community.
Reverend Francis J. Weber, noted Catholic scholar recently named an Honorary Chaplain to His Holiness, is Archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Monsignor Weber has just published A Select Bibliography To California Catholic Literature, 1856-1974 which lists 500 writings, 22 of them by Father Weber himself. This article is based on an address delivered by Father Weber on May 19, 1974, at the dedication of the McGroarty Home (Rancho Chupa Rosa) as a facility of the Cultural Arts Division of the Department of Recreation and Parks for the City of Los Angeles.