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Father Leo left his mark Franciscan rebuilt Croghan parish, and a case was built for sainthood


A German-born Franciscan priest seemed overwhelmed by the responsibility that greeted his May 1902 arrival in Croghan.

"I have so much ahead of me, that I do not know where to start," the Rev. Leo Heinrichs wrote a friend in Paterson, N.J. "How I will accomplish all remains to be seen. But I hope to do something with God's blessing."

What the 34-year-old friar found in the Lewis County lumberjack community of German and French heritage was devastation. Three weeks earlier, on April 24, an early-morning fire swept by strong winds had consumed 21 buildings, including three hotels, a tenement and six houses, a couple of stores and some barns.

Among the 21 was the entire complex that had been developed since Franciscan priests had arrived in 1876 at the invitation of Ogdensburg's first bishop, Edgar P. Wadhams. St. Stephen's Church, dedicated in 1881, had collapsed beneath the fury of the merciless flames. So too had a monastery, a convent that housed seven Franciscan nuns and 12 girls, and the parish school.

Residents could be thankful that the conflagration claimed no lives.

Father Heinrichs's mission — to raise St. Stephen's from the ashes.

"The command came rather sudden and I had hardly time to go and see anybody," he wrote. "I am living in a barn which has to some extent been fitted up for a house. During this summer I am supposed to build monastery, schoolhouse and Sisters' house. My future for a good while is by no means rosy. Yet, what can I do?"

The priest's stay in Croghan lasted two years, but he accomplished his task. Awaiting him four years later was a fate that would have him honored as the "Martyr of the Holy Eucharist," and being touted for sainthood.

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Baptized on the day of his birth in Oestrich, Germany, Aug. 15, 1867, he was named for his father, Joseph Heinrichs. Having come into the world on the Catholic feast of the Assumption of the mother of Jesus, Heinrichs early in life became dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was 19 when he applied for admission to the Franciscan Order, and politics at the time prompted his move to America.

Facing discriminatory anti-Catholic laws in Germany, Franciscan friars emigrated to the United States, with some assuming their roles in the Croghan parish. Heinrichs left Germany in 1886, arriving at a monastery at Paterson to continue his studies. Upon his ordination on July 26, 1891, he was given his religious name, Leo.

Paterson was his home for the next 11 years, until he was given the mission in Croghan.

Soon after the new pastor's arrival, work was begun to clear away the debris. A Francisan brother, Leonard, arrived from St. Louis to be project architect. Cornerstones for the school and monastery were placed on June 29 during a celebration that the Lewis County Democrat of Lowville described as "the largest assemblage of people that ever visited Croghan."

"If I smiled since I came here, it was yesterday," Father Leo wrote. "It was the lovliest (sic) ceremony, the nicest time they ever witnessed here."

He added, "The children were all so good" and noted, "They were at first afraid of me, but once we understood each other they were very good."

On his 35th birthday, he was able to move his celebration of Mass to the completed basement of the future school. Until then, his temporary "church" had been the village's opera house, specially fitted for that purpose by the owner, local industrialist Theodore B. Basselin.

Less than a month later, a modest schoolhouse ready for 100 children was dedicated by Bishop Henry Gabriels.

"I now trust that even for the future I shall have the good will of the people," he wrote. He prayed that "when I shall be taken away from here my successor may have things easier than I have at present."

He added he did not expect a transfer any time soon, "although I would be satisfied to change with any one whosoever."

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Father Leo found in Mr. Basselin a valuable friend. A native of France, Mr. Basselin built his wealth in the lumber industry and proved to be a benefactor not only for St. Stephen's, but also the Diocese of Ogdensburg.

During the formative months of their acquaintanceship, Mr. Basselin supplied at cost the timber for the parish buildings, helping reduce the project's price. The friendship blossomed to the point that Father Leo accompanied Mr. Basselin to Washington, D.C., where on Aug. 6, 1903, he presided at the 52-year-old lumberman's marriage to J.A. Florence Ager.

Just 30 months later, Father Leo, no longer Croghan's pastor, returned to St. Stephen's to conduct Florence Basselin's funeral. She died unexpectedly Feb. 9, 1906, at age 34.

The weather during that first summer of construction was apparently not the most cooperative, prompting Father Leo to write in August, "Why is it so wet and cold here?"

Nevertheless, work proceeded into the autumn, and a picnic was conducted to supplement money being raised from the pledges made by parishioners.

Construction was suspended with the arrival of winter, but Father Leo assumed the task of venturing out into the woods to ask for money.

"I intend to take some rides around in order to collect the subscriptions for the church," he wrote in January 1903. "I hope I won't take any tumbles into the snow nor into the yards here and there, nor into the air for joy that some one gives me a thousand."

By the end of the year, he was able to write, "I am glad it is all over and now I can think of a little rest."

The new St. Stephen's Church was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, 1903. Erected of wood with steel roof shingles, the 125-by-65-foot Romanesque structure with its 140-foot-high steeple was praised as one of the diocese's most beautiful churches. But the pastor's goal of getting some rest was thwarted by the realization that a debt remained.

"I was away to the woods in order to collect among the lumbermen," he wrote in January 1904.

It was an "unpleasant" task, he said, "not only because of the severe weather and because I have to be away so long, but also because of the deferent character of these woodsmen. Quite a few of them are Orangemen (Irish Protestants) and a great number have the manners and customs of woodsmen and no religion at all. What a combination that is you cannot well imagine and how unpleasant it is to ask an alms of these men no one knows who has not done it."

The lumberjacks sheltered him in their cabins on those wintry nights.

"The poor fellows have to work so hard early and late and have so little comfort. When at last they come out of the woods they spend their hard-earned money within a few days in the saloon. I don't see how God's blessing can be upon those places and we have nine of them in this small town. Some of those people in the woods are nice and all I can say about them is that I feel very sorry for their lot."

He talked of a 100-mile trip with the termometer at zero, and another day's journey of 20 miles, when the temperature dipped to 40 degrees below zero.

"The winter here is the severest that people remember," he said, adding "the people are quite pleased because it is the continued winter weather that brings them work and money."

Come summer, social events raised about $500, and on July 20, 1904, a musical was held, featuring an entertainer from New York City.

That was Father Leo's last hurrah in Croghan. As July came to a close, he was packing his bags to become pastor of St. Bonaventure's Monastery in Paterson and vicar of the Franciscan community there.

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Father Leo was traveling again after three years. He arrived in Denver on Sept. 23, 1907, to take up his new assignment — superior of the monastery and pastor of St. Elizabeth's Church.

Five months later, in mid-February, he addressed a parish women's group. His listeners would recall a comment he made: "How sweet it is to die at the feet of Mary!"

At a funeral on Friday, Feb. 21, 1908, Father Leo offered this thought in his eulogy — "Death may come at any time and under peculiar circumstances. We must live so that when the end comes we will be at peace with God, and then to us death will have no terror, but will be merely the transition to a happier life."

The next day, he changed the priests' Sunday Mass schedule. He chose to offer the 6 a.m. Mass instead of his usual 8 a.m. service, so that he could attend a Knights of Columbus Communion breakfast.

In the congregation for the 6 a.m. Mass was 50-year-old Giuseppe Alia, a baptized Catholic who had fled from Sicily with an anarchist sect. He exiled to South America, where his group determined to kill priests who had opposed their propaganda. Alia was designated the sect's assassin.

A targeted Italian priest was believed to have moved to the United States, and Alia followed his trail to New York City. The intended prey was subsequently believed to have continued on to Denver, bringing his hunter to the Rocky Mountain city. Unable to find the Italian priest, Alia settled on taking down any priest.

As the time for distribution of Holy Communion arrived at the 6 a.m. Mass on Feb. 23, 1908, Alia joined the faithful who knelt at the altar railing. After Father Leo placed the host on Alia's tongue, the stranger spat the wafer to the floor, then reached into his bulky winter coat and pulled a pistol from the band of his trousers.

An altar boy, seeing the weapon, tried to alert Father Leo, but there was no time. Aiming directly at the priest's heart, Alia pulled the trigger.

Father Leo fell in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary — "How sweet it is to die at the feet of Mary" — and struggled to make his last priestly act, recovering two of the blessed hosts from the floor and returning them to his chalice.

Witnesses said that he had a smile on his face while he was being administered the Last Rites of the Catholic Church.

An off-duty police officer and others in the church tackled Alia as he attempted to flee.

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A coroner later that day made a discovery about the priest's life that had not been known by even Father Leo's closest associates. Father Leo had subjected himself to silent mortification. Wrapped tightly around the priest's waist and also around both arms were metal chains of steel wire, spiked at half-inch intervals, rusted with blood. So tight were the cincture and armlets that the coroner had to file them off the body.

Deep callouses furrowed in his flesh fed suspicion that he had worn his self-imposed suit of penance for several years.

"In this way, he sought to gain the mastery over his troublesome temper," a biographer wrote.

Not long after Father Leo's body had been put to rest in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Paterson, some miracles were credited to his intercession. A Jesuit priest in Denver reported that after a portion of a vestment worn the day of his murder was applied to the tumor of a cancer patient, the patient was cured.

Another priest gave an account about his brother, a Mr. Woeber, who had been crippled by a foot condition. The brother held a rose taken from Father Leo's coffin and prayed for a cure. The following morning, the man was able to put on shoes and walk.

Whether the same or a different rose, a flower taken from the casket was said to have been still perfectly preserved and fragrant 11 years later. The family possessing the flower believed several of its members had been blessed with miracle cures, particularly a son whom several doctors had diagnosed to be hopelessly ill.

To those who felt Father Leo deserved canonization to sainthood, the most convincing evidence came in November 1911. The body was exhumed for interment in a larger section of the cemetery. The coffin was found to be watersoaked and rotted. The fabric lining of the casket and the brown habit in which the priest had been laid out crumbled to the touch.

"But his body was found in an extraordinary state of preservation," according to a biography. "His face and head were in perfect condition, showing no signs of decay."

Another publication added, "it is generally supposed that the best case of embalming done at that time could last not longer than 18 months."

A beatification committee formed in 1926 by the bishop of Newark, N.J., documented about 40 extraordinary cures that were attributed to the intercession of Father Leo. A document proposing his beatification read in part, "He zealously practiced internal and external mortification, and though his natural disposition was inclined to anger, nevertheless he always endeavored with the help of divine grace to combat this, his natural inclination."

Ecclesiastical "courts" were conducted in Denver, Newark and Cologne, Germany, and their collective testimony was presented in January 1933 to the Vatican. His cause was still being considered in 1940 when the Catholic Register listed him among four from the United States who were being considered for sainthood. No explanation is found as to what ended the effort.

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Alia was unrepentant to the day of his execution. As the hangman's noose was placed around his neck on June 12, 1908, his last words were said to be, "Death to the priests."

Theodore Basselin died in 1914. In his will, he left $25,000 for the building of a new Catholic school in Croghan, which, when opened in 1916, was named Father Leo Memorial School. It was staffed by Franciscan sisters until 1978, when it closed. The building now houses the American Maple Museum.

The schoolhouse built under Father Leo's direction still stands, and was used for several decades as a Knights of Columbus clubhouse. Its basement is equipped with two bowling lanes, which remain in use. Otherwise, the building is used for storage. The church, since renovated, and the former convent also still stand.

Father Leo's bloodstained vestments and penitential chains were brought to St. Stephen's for display in a case, and were presumably moved away when the Franciscan order ended its service to Croghan in 1990.

Assistance for this story was provided by Kenneth R. Proulx, author of "The Life and Enterprise of Theodore B. Basselin," 1980; Carol Schneeberger at St. Stephen's Church, and the Rev. Vincent Grogan, Franciscan archivist in Butler, N.J. Source material included "Martyr of the Holy Eucharist" by the Rev. William Jenkins, undated, and "Medieval Francis in Modern America" by Adelbert John Callahan, 1936.            

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