ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. – February marked the centenary of a traumatic event in the life of the young Holy Name Province – the assassination of Leo Heinrichs, OFM, on Feb. 23, 1908, at St. Elizabeth Church in Denver, Colo. Provincial Minister John O’Connor, OFM, marked the occasion at a special memorial Mass March 2 at St. Leo’s Church in Elmwood Park, which was named after the martyred friar.
From Germany to New Jersey to Colorado
Leo Heinrichs was born not far from Cologne, Germany, in 1867. From his early years, he was attracted to Franciscan life. Because of the anti-clerical Kulturkampf legislation then in effect in Germany, he traveled to the United States to enter the Order. He was received into the novitiate at St. Bonaventure Friary in Paterson, N.J., in 1886, where he was also ordained to the priesthood in 1891. For the first 10 years of his ministry, Leo served the parish in Paterson and its mission in nearby Little Falls. He then served as pastor in Croghan, N.Y., from 1902 to 1904, where he had to rebuild all the parish property which had been destroyed by fire in 1902. He returned to Paterson as pastor from 1904 to 1907, and then was assigned to Denver as pastor. During his brief five months there, he had purchased property to enlarge the parish school.
On the day of his death, he volunteered to get up early to take the place of another friar who was ill in order to celebrate the 6 a.m. Sunday Mass. While distributing Communion, he was shot by a man kneeling at the altar, who turned out to be an Italian anarchist who nourished a particular hatred for priests.
Leo was already very popular in Denver due to his outreach to the poor and attentiveness to the children of the parish as well as being a particularly devout friar, and the public reaction to his death was immense. The governor of Colorado and other dignitaries attended his packed funeral Mass, where a crowd of some 5,000 people were unable to enter. His body was then transported to Paterson, where some 20,000 people viewed his coffin as it lay in state in St. Bonaventure’s Church, before being buried in the friars’ plot in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Totowa, N.J.
Memorial Mass in Elmwood Park
Because of Leo’s great dedication to pastoral ministry in North Jersey, when Francis Koch, OFM, opened a mission church in Elmwood Park (then called East Paterson) in 1910, he named it in memory of Fr. Leo. The friars of Holy Name Province staffed St. Leo’s Parish until 2005. This history was recalled at the March 2 memorial Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop John Flesey of Newark, at which John represented the Province. Also in attendance were friars who had served at St. Leo’s including past pastors Brennan Connelly OFM, and Brian Cullinane, OFM, as well as Lawrence Burke, OFM, Theodore Lehr, OFM, and Jeremiah McGinley, OFM.
“Visiting the parish of St. Leo’s was a very pleasant experience,” John said. “The people were very welcoming as were the pastor and associate pastor. “
“The ceremony honoring Fr. Leo was very impressive,” John added. “A thoughtful and knowledgeable presentation on the life and death of Fr. Leo was given by two parishioners.“
“I was very impressed to see that the congregation at the Mass was standing-room only which is, at least partly, a reflection of the great work that the diocesan priests who replaced the friars are doing. They seemed very dedicated to keeping the Franciscan spirit alive.”
A plaque commemorating Fr. Leo was given to the Province (see photo “behind” the picture above).
— Fr. Dominic is Provincial Vicar of Holy Name Province.