From The Southern Cross: 

Deacon Albert Graff, who turned 102 Jan. 23, explains the secret to his longevity in two words: “Never retire.”

An engineer by profession, he had scarcely retired after 25 years at General Atomics when he began his more than 30 years of ministry as a permanent deacon.

“I retired from General Atomics in April of 1983 and was ordained a deacon in May of 1983,” said Deacon Graff, who ministered to the St. James-St. Leo Catholic Community in Solana Beach, 22 miles north of San Diego.

He continued in active ministry well into his 90s, retiring for good only after suffering a stroke five years ago. He still attends Mass at the parish, including Friday school Masses.

Born in North Dakota, Deacon Graff grew up in Los Angeles, where he attended Catholic schools through high school.

His family was far from affluent, and his Catholic secondary education was made possible through a unique arrangement: His pastor said the parish would pay his tuition if he cleaned the church every week.

Deacon Graff went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from University of California, Berkeley.

In 1947, he married his wife, Marion, who died in 2000. The couple settled in San Diego in 1958, becoming members of St. James Parish.

In the late 1970s, at a time when there were already two deacons serving the St. James-St. Leo Community, he remembers asking his pastor, “Can you use a third?” Emboldened by the priest’s response — “I can use a dozen” — he entered the San Diego Diocese’s diaconal formation program.

Among his duties as a deacon, he had a particular love for preaching and was committed to serving the poor of nearby Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego.

In 1985, he co-founded Esperanza International, a nonprofit that has constructed more than 1,000 homes for poor families in Tijuana.

“While other charitable groups were building ‘homes’ from discarded garage doors that were really little more than glorified shacks,” recalled Msgr. Richard Duncanson, pastor of St. James-St. Leo from 2001 to 2006, “Deacon Al developed a system by which the families built their own homes using interlocking concrete blocks, which they made and assembled on-site.”

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