‘Sister-Sister’ retires from senior home chaplaincy

Sister Jackie Leech’s ministry marked by kindness, constancy

Roxanne King
Tammy and Sister

After 21 years ensuring the spiritual needs of residents at the Gardens at St. Elizabeth in north Denver were met, Sister Jackie Leech, S.C., has retired.

“It was time,” the energetic Sister of Charity of Cincinnati said. “God was just saying, ‘Move on.’

“I felt it would be good,” she continued, “for [the Gardens] to have someone new with fresh ideas.”

Among the 200 seniors who call the Gardens home are several priests, which was the case throughout Sister Leech’s ministry there.

“I found it an honor to work with the priests,” the 73-year-old nun said, noting that while she was careful to respect the fact they were retired, she also felt a responsibility to make sure they could celebrate the sacraments.

“That’s what they were ordained to do,” she explained. “When I needed them … they were right there every single time. They were just wonderful.”

As chaplain at the Gardens, Sister Leech was in charge of coordinating Masses and other sacraments for the residents, 96 percent of which are Catholic.

“It was like a little parish,” she said. “The Gardens is a wonderful community of faith-filled residents and staff.”

Born in Pittsburgh, Sister Leech’s family moved to Denver when she was in second grade. She met the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati while attending Cathedral High School. After graduation, she entered the order whose charism is living out St. Paul’s declaration, “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14).

She has a bachelor’s degree in English, a master’s degree in theology, a certificate in gerontology, completed a clinical pastoral education program and is board certified by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for chaplaincy.

Sister at her desk

Sister Jackie Leech, a beloved nun who served for 21 years at the Gardens of St. Elizabeth retirement home, is retiring. (Photo provided)

Prior to serving at the Gardens, Sister Leech taught at her alma mater several years during the time it transitioned to Central High School, then served seven years as vocations director for the Denver Archdiocese before switching to pastoral care.

“I went to Our Lady Mother of the Church in Commerce City and became pastoral associate,” she said.

After 11 years in Commerce City, she entered a yearlong clinical pastoral education program that included working with residents at an assisted living facility.

“I fell in love with those people,” she recalled. “That’s when I decided I wanted to work with the elderly.”

Upon completing her program, the Gardens posted their first fulltime chaplaincy position and she got it.

“It was providential,” she said with a smile, noting that many of the priests she served at the Gardens she knew from her time as vocations director.

“The best thing about the Gardens that energized me, nourished me and made me happy was my deep relationships with the residents and staff,” she said. “The flip side of that was when a resident would die or when they would have to move to a nursing home—that broke my heart.”

She retired Jan. 4, the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, foundress of her order. “That’s the day all the sisters come over to the Gardens and we renew our vows together,” she said, adding it seemed the appropriate time to move forward with whatever God calls her to in this next chapter of her life.

“The best thing about the Gardens that energized me, nourished me and made me happy was my deep relationships with the residents and staff. The flip side of that was when a resident would die or when they would have to move to a nursing home—that broke my heart.”

“I’m going to pray and play more,” she said. “I’m going to do more biking, skiing, hiking, reading and visiting friends and family.”

Msgr. Bernie Schmitz, archdiocesan vicar for clergy, said Sister Leech’s ministry was marked by “humor, patience, kindness and constancy.”

“She worked for me [her first] year in Commerce City,” he said. “She was beloved there, the people had great respect for her.

“That was also true [at the Gardens] not just of the priests but of all the people she served there,” he said.

Her vocation as a religious sister gave her a unique bond with the priests at the Gardens.

“In a sense, she was a Sister-sister [to them],” Msgr. Schmitz said. “They were very much in her heart.

“She will be dearly missed,” he added, “but I’m sure she won’t stop being active.”

He’s right: as the only nun chaplain with the Denver Police Department, where she has volunteered 20 years for District 1, Sister Leech aims to continue that ministry and hopes to get involved with Special Olympics.

“It was very difficult for me to leave the Gardens, but I know it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “Knowing the residents’ names, their families, a little about their history—being part of their lives and having them be part of my life was a wonderful ministry.”

COMING UP: Religious Sisters of Mercy to leave seminary, but not archdiocese

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Religious Sisters of Mercy to leave seminary, but not archdiocese

Professor-nuns helped establish St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

Roxanne King
DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 25: Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila celebrates the Christmas midnight mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on December 25, 2014, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic Register)

In 1998, four Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., arrived to Denver to help open and establish St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. Over the years the order’s presence in the archdiocese grew to seven and spread to the Western Slope.

This month, with their original mission completed, three sisters are leaving the seminary convent, but four sisters will remain at St. Clare of Assisi School in Edwards, Colo., to continue teaching there.

“It’s been a great joy for each one of the sisters assigned here to work in the seminary, to collaborate and to bring it together,” said Sister Esther Mary Nickel, superior of the Denver convent the last dozen years. Explaining their move, she added, “Our hope was that as new priests were formed [at the seminary], they would eventually take over our jobs and that is happening.”When the seminary was being launched, Archbishop Charles Chaput invited the sisters to help staff it, and to maintain the seminary chapel and sacristy, work with first-year seminarians and care for the archbishop’s residence. Archbishop Samuel Aquila, then-Father Aquila, served as seminary rector.

Today the seminary is thriving and the archbishop’s residence, which sits across from the seminary, was recently expanded for communal living and combined with the new multi-use facility called the Holy Trinity Center.

The Holy Trinity Center, which was paid for through private donors and completed last year, solves space woes the archdiocese was experiencing at the John Paul II Center campus, which houses two seminaries—St. John Vianney and Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary—the convent, a Spirituality Year House for first-year seminarians, and the pastoral center offices.

“The Holy Trinity Center is fulfilling its purpose as a place for meetings, dinners and a place of hospitality. It’s been wonderful seeing how it’s developed,” said Sister Nickel, who has coordinated its activities since it opened.

Sister Nickel, who holds doctoral degrees in theology, liturgy and agronomy, also taught at St. John Vianney, assisted the Catholic Medical Association Denver Guild, the nonprofit Divine Mercy Supportive Care, Endow women’s studies, served as archdiocesan liaison to the Discalced Carmelites, and was a consultant to the Office of Liturgy.

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Sister Esther Mary Nickel has been serving at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary since 1998. While she and several other Religious Sisters of Mercy are leaving the archdiocese, a few will remain in Colorado to serve at St. Clare of Assisi school in Edwards. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“It’s been a great privilege and a joy to work with these men who go out and serve the people of God in the parishes. For me teaching has been a tremendous gift,” she said, adding that she also enjoyed her work with the Catholic groups, chancery offices and religious communities.

“There are such good people who have been working in the Archdiocese of Denver,” she said.

Sister Nickel is going to Jackson, Minn., to write a couple of books and several articles. She’ll also be helping former Denver priest, now Sioux City, Iowa, Bishop R. Walker Nickless, with liturgical formation.

Also leaving are Sister Mary Elisha Glady, who is going to the Diocese of Lake Charles, La., to serve as director of formation, and Sister Mary Katerina Masek, who is going to the Diocese of Phoenix to teach philosophy and music.

Staying in the mountains to serve St. Clare of Assisi School are the principal Sister Marirose Rudek; community superior Sister Mary Andrea Lesko, and teachers Sister Mary Rosanna Leinberger and Sister Mary Hanah Doak.

Sister Rudek is the sole remaining member of the first sisters who came to Denver to help open St. John Vianney. The others—Sister Mary Judith O’Brien, Sister Mary Prudence Allen, Sister Moira Debono and, the following year, Sister Mary Timothea Elliot, previously moved on to other assignments.

When a new order moves in to the Denver convent, their primary task will be to care for the archbishop’s residence and the Holy Trinity Center, Sister Nickel said.

“The convent was built in 1950 and had Precious Blood Sisters who did laundry and cooking for the seminary,” she said, referring to the old St. Thomas Seminary, predecessor to St. John Vianney. When St. Thomas closed, the Precious Blood Sisters left, she added.

“We feel grateful that we’re still part of the archdiocese,” said Sister Doak. “A lot of our vocations have come from the archdiocese—six or seven—including my own. The archdiocese is much beloved by our order and we’re grateful to be able to continue the tradition that was started in Denver and expanded to the Western Slope.

“There’s a sadness in closing the [Denver] convent,” she continued, “but also a peace that it’s the Lord’s will—and as part of the Lord’s will we are in this little mountain town [Edwards]. We love the school, St. Clare’s, and we’re really rooting for it and want to see it grow.”

For more information about the Religious Sister of Mercy, visit rsmofalma.org.