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Beloved diocesan priest Monsignor Tom Wallace, 69, passed away on Jan. 22. He was the first diocesan priest to be ordained for the Diocese (right), ordained by Bishop Phillip Straling on Jan. 18, 1980. Pictured in the center is Msgr. Wallace doing woodworking, a favorite hobby of his, and a cross that he made.

Known and beloved throughout the Diocese for his infectious smile, to-the-point homilies, and for addressing those he encountered as “saint,” Monsignor Tom Wallace passed away on Jan. 22 at the age of 69.

His 40-year legacy of priestly service to the Diocese is long and distinguished, touching many parish and diocesan ministries. At the time of his death, he was serving as Director of the Diocesan Office of Mission and Vicar for Priests. He had recently served as Pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Riverside up until July of last year.

Diocesan officials say Msgr. Wallace appears to have passed away peacefully in his sleep at the rectory of St. Adelaide Parish in Highland, where he lived.

Bishop Emeritus Gerald Barnes, who entrusted many parish and diocesan ministries to Msgr. Wallace over 25 years of leading the Diocese, expressed both sadness and gratitude at the news.

“He was a trusted advisor all the years I was bishop of the diocese,” Bishop Barnes said. “God was so good to us that he gave us Fr. Tom to enjoy, to have as a friend, to learn from his unique gifts.”

Msgr. Wallace was a native son of the Diocese, born Sept. 5, 1953, in Fontana, CA to Albert and Elaine Wallace. He was baptized at the former St. Anne Parish in San Bernardino and grew up in St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Rialto. He attended elementary and high school in Rialto and, upon graduation, spent two years at San Bernardino Valley College. Already with an eye on entering the seminary, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Diego in 1976 and then entered St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, CA where he would earn a master’s degree in Divinity.

His completion of seminary studies coincided with the birth of the Diocese, and so he has the distinction of being the first priest ever to be ordained for the Diocese of San Bernardino. Bishop Phillip Straling ordained Msgr. Wallace on January 18, 1980 at Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral in San Bernardino. Asked just before Ordination how he would go about his ministry as a priest, Msgr. Wallace offered a response that foretold his pastoral touch. “Very gently,” he said. “And I mean that.”

Bishop Straling offered a prayer at the news of Msgr. Wallace’s passing. “God our Father, thank you for the life and pastoral ministry of your priest Msgr. Tom Wallace,” he wrote. “He was a gift to your Church in serving as a missionary in South America and in parish ministry in the Diocese of San Bernadino.  Grant him eternal life and let perpetual light shine upon him O Lord. May he rest in Peace!”

The first four years of Msgr. Wallace’s priesthood were spent as Parochial Vicar of St. Peter and St. Paul Parish in Alta Loma. The next three years marked the only time he would leave the Diocese, serving as a missionary in Peru and Ecuador with the Society of St. James. Upon his return he was appointed Pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Barstow. Over the course of his ministry Msgr. Wallace would also pastor St. James Parish, Perris; St. Joan of Arc Parish, Blythe; St. Martha Parish, Murrieta; St. Francis of Assisi Parish, La Quinta; and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Riverside.

Recognizing Msgr. Wallace’s qualities of patience and consensus building, Bishop Barnes called upon him to fill many important positions of diocesan leadership, beginning in 1999 when Msgr. Wallace was named Vicar General of the Diocese. Five years later he was named the first Episcopal Vicar of the Riverside Pastoral Region, representing Bishop Barnes in all of the parish communities of Riverside County. He served as Vicar for Priests and sat on the Diocesan Curia, Presbyteral Council, College of Consultors, Diocesan Finance Council, Diocesan Review Committee and Diocesan Building Committee. In 2001, at the petitioning of Bishop Barnes, the Vatican conferred upon him the title of Chaplain of His Holiness, and thus his familiar title of “Monsignor.” 

Bishop Barnes, who bestowed upon him his Amar Es Entregarse Award in 2013, recalled another important assignment he gave to Msgr. Wallace. “I trusted his priesthood so much that I appointed him as a spiritual director for our seminarians,” Bishop Barnes said. “He loved the priesthood and priests.” 

Though he ascended to positions of great leadership and influence in the Diocese, Msgr. Wallace remained humble and gentle in his ministry. “He is someone who knows the heart of Jesus,” Sister Pesio Iosefo, S.M.S.M., former Director of Campus Ministry for the Diocese, once said of him. “Everyone is the same to him. There’s no ‘class’ in his life.”

He addressed many as “Saint,” providing the often-surprised recipient with a simple catechesis in what to him defined sainthood.

“For me, a saint is not one who is perfect,” he said during a 2019 interview with the BYTE. “What makes a saint a saint is that they keep trying. And there are so many people out there today, they keep trying.

“There’s nothing wrong with affirming people of their baptismal goodness.”

In his spare time, Msgr. Wallace developed a talent for woodworking, which produced everything from complete home remodels to ornate wooden crosses. He said it was a way of communing with Jesus’s earthly father, a carpenter.

“I pray a lot to St. Joseph,” he quipped. “He’s helped me with a lot of my projects.”

As word of Msgr. Wallace’s passing became public, thousands of tributes have poured in on diocesan social media.

“He was calm and spoke with a smile. He looked like he had the spirit of God on him,” Irene Valenzuela wrote. “I think he was an angel already.”

The Vigil and Rosary for Msgr. Wallace is to be held at Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral in San Bernardino on Feb. 5 with the Mass of Resurrection the following morning at St. Paul the Apostle Church, Chino Hills. Burial will take place at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Cemetery in Colton after the Mass with a reception to follow at St. Adelaide’s.