John Leonard

When I decided to move my family to Richmond in 1994 from Reading, PA for a new job, I did the pre-drill: first go alone and look for a neighborhood with good schools and a good Catholic parish.

We settled on the west end of Richmond for the schools and then I looked for a parish. I heard about a new church (St. Michael’s) forming a few miles away so I went to attend a Mass. The brand new parish was using a Middle School auditorium for Mass while the new church was being built. I nestled in a comfortable “theatre” chair and observed the people around me. All were chatting and telling stories about their week. Smiles everywhere and the place was alive with a feeling of happiness all around me.

Being raised in St. Louis, where growing up Catholic seemed to be a given, I have been to hundreds, maybe thousands of Masses. Most seemed to be compulsory in attendance, and ones where a place of solemnity trumped celebration. Rarely did people interact in Church, that was for praying.

The contrast hit me hard, in a very good way. I called Debbie and said, “I think I found our parish. So vibrant. I think you will love it.”

The next day I sought out the pastor, Fr John Leonard, who was working from an old ranch home on the new parish grounds. He met me with open arms, asked me to sit down and chat.

I told him the neighborhood I was moving to and asked if that was in his parish boundaries. Knowing I was from the Midwest, he said, “John, you are now in the south, and we Catholics are in the minority. We will take you at whichever parish you choose. Just go, attend and participate!”

That was my first real encounter with a man who would later become a very important part of my life.

Father John was a charismatic man. You could not keep your eye off of him while he celebrated Mass. He brought such life and meaning to rituals formerly so mundane to me. His sermons were “real” not preachy. He spoke about his trials and tribulations, as well as his joys in life while relating to the Gospel message.

He was brash at times, he had to be, since he was in charge of building his third Church in the diocese and raising the funds to do so. He never shied away from asking for money for a church window or a bell or a processional cross. All the money going for the Church.

And what a church he built. One that was in the round so you could see the “faces” of your neighbors, not the back of their heads. The church was artistically beautiful in a simple way-clean lines and good acoustics.

The church grew to be one of the biggest in Richmond. And at the center of it all was our leader John Leonard.

After Father retired ten years ago, I became very close to him. I would call him on my long drives between stores and talk for long periods of time, maybe an hour or so. We spoke about all topics and his insight usually ended up with me looking at things from a different perspective. He was a liberal and proud of it. Yet he was never demeaning of the views of others. He later went on to teach Ethics and Christianity in Film classes at a local community college. His classes were always filled up-no wonder.

Last week, John Leonard died from cancer. His death has hit me, and the community hard. It is difficult to believe that I will not have him to talk to anymore and I will miss him dearly.

John Leonard is leaving this world in a private way. As of this writing there is no obituary in the paper. I could not even find a picture of him on the internet to include in this post. Read below for his final letter to the parishioners of St. Michael’s.

He once told me that all he ever wanted in life, from a very early age, was to be a priest. And what a priest he was! He was married to the Church and now is in a much better place.

Thank you Father John, mostly for making me a better person.

 

John Marklin

www.marklinfinancial.com

 

 

TO THE FAITH COMMUNITY OF ST. MICHAEL THE ARCHANGEL CATHOLIC CHURCH
When I was called back to Richmond from Norfolk Catholic by Bishop Sullivan in 1992, it was to begin a third parish for the Diocese.  The land was located on Springfield Road -a large field, home for 4 horses, a small brick rancher and a pond.
I would be visiting Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Mary’s, two well established parishes, to invite those who lived within the new parish boundaries to join us – what a challenge!  On May 31st, we gathered for the first time at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church on Hungry Road (all 150 families) to begin our journey as  “The New Catholic Parish in the West End”. You welcomed the idea of a parish to be formed on the basis of the Documents of Vatican II.  You rolled up your sleeves and did the work.  This was your parish and when I left in 2004, you never missed a beat.
I know there is a better way to do this, but time is not on my side.  I have been diagnosed with stage 4 Liver Cancer.  I want to thank you for all you did as a new faith community – St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church.  You have heard the Word of God proclaimed and brought those words to the 21st Century in all you have done for each other and God’s people wherever there was a need.  You were and are the presence of the Risen Lord in this day and time.
God blessed me by your presence in my life.  I ask that you continue to support Fr. Dan and your community.  Keep me in prayer as I make this last journey to God’s loving arms.

Fr. John E. Leonard
Founding pastor 1992-2004

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