Cheverus profiles: Joseph Gray of St. Joseph Parish in Malden

BRAINTREE -- When an odd job has to be taken care of at St. Joseph Parish in Malden, volunteer Joseph Gray always hops to it -- sometimes literally. For the last four years, Gray has dressed up as the Easter Bunny to entertain kids on Easter Sunday. Speaking to The Pilot in a March 13 phone interview, Gray said that he doesn't mind looking "weird" if it's for the sake of the church.

"The priests, the children, the families really like it," he said.

Last Christmas, with his pastor's permission, he came to Mass dressed as Santa Claus.

"I wasn't lectoring that day," he said, "so it didn't matter."

Colorful costumes aren't the only way that Gray, 59, gives back to St. Joseph's. For his decades of volunteering as a lector and extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, among other roles, Gray was one of 151 people who received Cheverus Awards in 2023. The annual archdiocesan awards go to those who have dedicated their lives to serving the Catholic Church in Boston.

"Joseph Gray is very supportive to the parish community," Father Anthony Mecha, pastor of St. Joseph's, told The Pilot.

Gray was "shocked" when he found out that he received the Cheverus Award.

"My first reaction was, 'Why?'" he said. "I'm not the most religious person around."

He believes that he was given the award because he serves as a "symbol" of service to the parish.

"How many parishioners, without being asked, put on a bunny rabbit outfit and just show up to entertain the children?" He said.

Symbolism is important to Gray. He started volunteering at St. Joseph's when his children were enrolled in religious education there. He felt that it would be "hypocritical" not to serve the parish that was teaching his children.

"I think to myself, 'Symbol, symbol, symbol,'" he said. "I need to be a good example."

Gray joined St. Joseph's in the late 1990s. He had drifted from his Catholic upbringing, but he returned to the church because he didn't want his children to grow up "without some moral compass."

"I needed to have a better direction in my life," he said, "and I made a conscious decision that I need to set an example for my children."

He is currently a lector and a member of the parish St. Vincent de Paul Society. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he gave the church his camera equipment and taught the parish staff how to use it, allowing them to livestream Masses on YouTube. Father Mecha said that Gray was "instrumental" in keeping Mass going throughout the pandemic.

"I'm really proud of helping them broadcast their church services when they really needed to," Gray said.

Gray was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. When he was one year old, his father emigrated to the U.S., and he and his four siblings moved to the island of Dominica, his mother's homeland, to live with their grandmother. He often tells his children stories about his childhood in Dominica, and they typically begin with, "We were so poor," he said.

Gray, his siblings, and his grandmother lived in a house on the beach without a telephone. Sticks and rocks were their only toys. He spent most of his childhood barefoot, only wearing shoes on special occasions like weddings and baptisms. Life revolved around the church, which was across the street from his seaside home.

"The whole family was brought up Catholic," he said.

At the age of five, he moved to Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood and had to "translate" the stark differences between Caribbean and American culture.

"I had a heavy Trinidadian accent when I was a child," he said. "It sort of faded when I hit the sixth or seventh grade. That's when people stopped asking me about my accent."

Volunteering at St. Joseph's and being part of the parish community reminded him of the "small village mentality" that he fondly remembered from life in the Caribbean.

"Everyone knew everyone else in the neighborhood," he said, "whereas here in America, it's not really like that. It's difficult to find that in the big city."

At first, he volunteered at St. Joseph's for his children and planned to stop being a lector when they grew up. However, over the years, he has grown more comfortable there and plans to stay for good.

"I later realized I needed it myself," he said, "because it was a way to reach people in the community and get to know people."

As a member of the Malden School Committee, he is required to go door to door collecting signatures to appear on the ballot. He has noticed that people are happy to see him on their doorstep because they recognize him from church.

"That's one of the passive things that you can't predict will happen when you're a member of the church," he said. "You can't control some things in life and how connections with other people work."

After graduating from high school, Gray spent four years in the Army before "drifting."

"Life was kind of directionless," he said. "I didn't know what I wanted to do."

He "spontaneously" started tinkering with computers, and when he noticed that people were willing to pay for his services, he made that his career. He currently works as an IT specialist for the Umass Dartmouth School of Law. He got married, settled down in Malden, started a family, and rediscovered his faith.

"It's benefited me in odd ways," he said about volunteering, "and I just go with it. I don't feel like I'm going to stop any time soon."