This is the 10th in a series of profiles of HNP friars commemorating anniversaries of Franciscan profession in 2016. They will be honored by the Province at a special Mass on June 23. The previous issue of HNP Today featured Lawrence Ford, OFM.
HARTFORD, Conn. — It was literally a tap on the shoulder that led John Leonard, OFM, to consider life as a friar.
While working in the financial district in downtown Boston in the early to mid-1980s, John often attended weekday Mass at St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street and noticed the friars working in the soup and sandwich line.
One day, as he prayed after Mass, the late Alexander Wyse, OFM, tapped him on the shoulder and spoke to him about the possibility of a vocation.
“I remember the joy and happiness that flooded my heart at that time,” John said.
It would be a few years before John joined Holy Name Province, but Alexander stayed in touch with calls and visits and kept encouraging him to become a friar. This summer, John is commemorating 25 years as a Franciscan, a quarter century that has been focused on parish life.
The son of Irish immigrants — Margaret and the late Peter — John is the eldest of five children who grew up in a loving, fairly religious family in the Boston area. He attended St. Mary’s Grammar School in Melrose and Malden Catholic High School, a school staffed by the Xaverian Brothers.
Working in Boston’s Financial District
John graduated from Tufts University in 1981 with a double major in economics and history. He began working in the Boston area, first as a clerk at the Harvard Coop in Harvard Square, and then for an insurance company pricing variable annuity units from mutual fund conversions.
John also worked as a computer programmer and consultant, a job he found creative and rewarding and one in which he honed skills that he uses in his current ministry.
In addition to Alexander’s encouragement, the volunteer work that John did through the St. Vincent de Paul Society at his local parish had an impact on his vocation. John enjoyed visiting poor families and experiencing the joy of helping others.
In 1989, he joined Holy Name Province’s formation program as an affiliate at Holy Cross Friary in the Bronx, N.Y. During this time, he took courses in philosophy at Fordham University. He professed simple vows on June 1, 1991 and, after a summer of more philosophy courses at Siena College, near Albany, N.Y., moved to Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md., where he continued his formation.
Profession and Ordination
His internship in 1994 was split between Wilmington, Del., and Bolivia. In Wilmington, he worked at St. Paul’s, a largely Hispanic parish, the Franciscan Center, and at St. Joseph’s Parish. During a five-month assignment in Bolivia, John learned some Spanish and experienced the Bolivian culture.
He professed solemn vows in September 1995 at St. Anne’s Church in Fair Lawn, N.J. While he was preparing for the priesthood, he lived at Gemelli House in Silver Spring, with other newly solemnly professed friars, as well as veteran friars, most of who were Washington Theological Union faculty members. In 1996, he earned a master of divinity degree from the WTU.
John was ordained to the priesthood on May 18, 1996 at St. Anne’s. His first assignment was Holy Angels Parish in Little Falls, N.J., where he ministered from 1996 through 2001. He enjoyed the thriving parish and active ministry life.
He spent the next nine years at two other North Jersey parishes — St. Anne’s in Fair Lawn, beginning in 2001, and St. Anthony’s in Butler, beginning in 2005.
Today, John is parochial vicar at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in downtown Hartford, where his focus is sacramental ministry, including Mass and confessions, and serving as chaplain to parish groups.
Visiting the ill and homebound in hospitals, rehab facilities and residences, and funeral ministry are the two most satisfying aspects of his ministry, John said.
“People share their life with you at a deep, trusting level. The experience of illness or injury or being homebound presents many challenges and people want to talk through or reason out their faith,” he said.
“Funeral service is a sad time for people as they say goodbye to loved ones,” John said. “It can be heartbreaking, but at the same time I am able to touch people with my words and presence and be touched by them in turn as they go through that journey.”
Reflecting Back on Parish Ministry
In The Road Less Traveled, poet Robert Frost wrote that taking the road less traveled “has made all the difference.” John describes the life of a friar as a road less traveled and, reflecting back, says he has been blessed and enriched by the many people he has met.
He cites the Gospel in which Peter asks Jesus “We’ve given up everything to follow you – what will we get?” Jesus responds that the disciples will receive 100 times as much. “Jesus’ words have been fulfilled as it has been a wonderful experience,” John said.
John appreciates the hospitality and camaraderie of the Holy Name Province friar community and has experienced great warmth during his various parish assignments.
He also is also proud of the variety of ministerial placements of friars in the Province. “Parish, education, shrine, and other unique ministries are the charism of Francis alive,” John said.
Among friars who have influenced his life are Thomas Gallagher, OFM, his first and current pastor, Charles Finnegan, OFM, and late friars Jude Murphy, OFM, Peter Sheridan, OFM, and Flavian Walsh, OFM.
In his spare time, John enjoys visiting local coffee shops to read the paper and stay current on news. He feels it’s very important to be informed about the events of the world which, he said, prepares him for preaching and interacting with people. John also enjoys the challenge of playing chess to try to keep his mind sharp.
St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish will host an anniversary celebration on Saturday, June 18 to honor John as well as two other Hartford friars — Andrew Giardino, OFM, who is marking 60 years as a friar, and Cidouane Joseph, OFM, who is marking his 10-year anniversary.
— Karen Karaszewski is a freelance writer based in western New York.
- “Jubilee Celebration Set for June 23” – March 4, 2016, HNP Today
- “St. Paul Community Marks Quarter Century of Franciscan Presence” – Dec. 9, 2015, HNP Today
- “Franciscan Presence in Hartford Commemorated with Mass, Block Party” – Nov. 12, 2015, HNP Today