Philanthropist and merchant, born at Cork, Ireland, 10 May, 1832; died at New York, 21 March, 1904. His father was originally from Queen’s County, where the Graces lived from the days of their ancestor, Raymond Le Gros, who went to Ireland with Strongbow; his mother, a Russell from Tipperary, was a convert to the Catholic Faith. James Grace, his father, went from Ireland to Peru in 1850, but not being successful there, returned to Ireland, while his son, William Russell, remained behind and in time became a partner with the firm of John Bryce at Callao. This firm became Grace Brothers & Co., and W. R. Grace & Co., with offices in New York, San Francisco, and every city of importance on the west coast of South America. Grace also established, at New York, The New York and Pacific Steamship Co., and other financial enterprises. In 1859 he married Lillias Gilchrist of Thomaston, Maine.
He left Peru in the year 1864 and for a time lived in Brooklyn, then in 1878 moved to New York. At the time of the famine in Ireland in 1878 and 1879 his firm contributed to the relief fund one-fourth the cargo of provisions sent in the steamship Constellation for the famine stricken. This fact and others made him so popular that he was nominated for Mayor of New York, and, in spite of much opposition from bigoted sources, elected in 1880. He was the first Catholic to hold that office. He was re-elected in 1884 and served a second term. An attempt to induce him to accept a nomination for a third term was made, but he declined to run.
A fact that best shows the Christian character of the man is that during his two terms as mayor he went to Mass every morning in the neighbouring church of St. Agnes before going to official work. His chief benevolent work was the foundation of the Grace Institute in May, 1897, which he dedicated to the memory of his parents. The object of this institution was to give free tuition to women in dressmaking, stenography, typewriting, book-keeping, and domestic science. The poor are also generally helped by this institution. He was prompted to found and endow it after a study of the economic conditions of workmen’s families during a strike among the employees of one of his enterprises. The institution is non-sectarian, and is under the charge of the Sisters of Charity.
The Catholic Encyclopedia (1911)