Remembering Father Leo Heinrichs, Denver’s little-known martyr who could one day be a saint

Father Leo Heinrichs woke up the morning of Feb. 23, 1908, and prepared for the 6 a.m. Mass at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Denver. While he normally said the 8 a.m. Mass, Father Leo asked his vicar, Father Wulstan Workman, if he would switch on account of a meeting he had later that morning.

It was the last Mass the Franciscan priest ever celebrated. While distributing Holy Communion, an Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Alia approached the altar rail, and knelt down to receive the Host given him by Father Leo. However, upon receiving it, Alia spit the Host out into his hand and threw it in the face of Father Leo. As the Host fell to the ground, Alia pulled a revolver hidden in his pocket and put a bullet in Father Leo’s heart.

The front page of the February 27, 1908 edition of the Denver Catholic Register described Father Leo’s final moments: “Father Leo reeled and sank to the floor of the sanctuary, striving with the instinct of the priest to collect the consecrated particles which had been scattered from the chalice. Father Wulstan, being called, was just In time to administer the last sacraments when he expired, his last act being to point mutely to the fallen contents of the ciborium.”

With his dying breaths, Father Leo recovered two fallen hosts which he placed in the ciborium he held; he then placed the ciborium on the step of the Virgin Mary’s altar which lay a few feet away. Just a week prior, Father Leo had told members of the Marian society Sodality of Our Lady, “If I had my choice of a place where I would die, I would choose to die at the feet of the Blessed Virgin.” An eyewitness to the murder said that indeed, Father Leo died at the foot of the Blessed Virgin’s altar, with a peaceful smile spread about his face.

A contemporary illustration of the assassination of Father Leo Heinrichs by the Italian anarchist Giuseppe Alia on Feb. 23, 1908. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Father Leo’s love of the Virgin Mary was second only to his love of the Eucharist, as exemplified by his dying acts. On Nov. 9, 1916, the Denver Catholic Register, reprinting an article from The Catholic Columbian, wrote of Father Leo’s Eucharistic devotion: “How he loved the Blessed Sacrament! Although he was dying from the moment the bullet, sharpened by the brutal murderer for its deadly work, pierced his heart, his whole concern was to save from desecration the consecrated species scattered on the ground around him. Curiosity to know why he had an enemy, the roar of rage coming from a congregation frenzied at the crime — not these things turned him from solicitude for the dignity of the great Sacrament he had in his keeping.”

Alia, Father Leo’s assassin, confessed that he was an anarchist. He had planned to kill several other priests that day, and he showed no remorse for his actions. Despite a request for leniency on behalf of the Colorado Franciscan friars, Alia was tried and sentenced to death by hanging – a show of justice in those days. Reportedly, Alia’s last words were, “Death to the priests!”

Father Wulstan, in reflecting on how his life was spared due to an innocent switch with Father Leo between Masses, later told the Denver Post, “I would have been killed and he would be alive now. There is one way to solve the affair that I can see, and that is that God chose the better man.”

Father Leo was informally declared a martyr in the days that followed. His funeral Mass was attended by thousands of people, including the Colorado governor. Father Leo was originally a priest of the St. Bonaventure Friary in Paterson. N.J., and though he’d only been assigned to Denver for five months at the time of his death, he was a pastor who was well-loved by his parishioners. His body was transferred back to the friary in Paterson and he was buried at the Holy Sepulchre Roman Catholic Cemetery in Totowa. His gravesite is frequented by pilgrims who visit from all around.

This 1908 file photo from the Denver Catholic Register archives shows a full St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish for the funeral Mass of Father Leo. Thousands attended, with the majority of attendees likely outside of the church. His body, lying in the open casket, can be seen near the center of the photo. (File photo)

After his death, the coroner discovered, quite by accident, more indications of Father Leo’s holiness and heroism. It was reported that Father Leo wrapped his arms and waist with leather straps studded with rows of iron hooks, and the extensive scarring indicated he had done so for a long time. While this sort of practice seems a bit extreme by today’s standards, various priests and religious throughout Church history have done similar practices as a form of asceticism to both keep sinful desires at bay and to share in the sufferings the Lord endured on our behalf. It was likely that Father Leo did this as a form of penance, perhaps to tame his quick temper. Furthermore, when his fellow friars entered his room after his death, they found not a bed but a wooden door upon which Father Leo slept.

In the 1920s, The Franciscan order opened an investigation into Father Leo’s heroic virtues. His cause for canonization was submitted, and in 1938, the process for his beatification was authorized. One parish in Paterson was so sure of Father Leo’s canonization that they were to name it in his honor. However, for various reasons, his cause has since stalled, but it remains open. Perhaps today, in 2021, asking for Father Leo’s intercession to live a courageous and reverent faith, with a deep love for the Eucharist, is all the more germane and necessary. 

As we remember Father Leo on this day, the 113th anniversary of the day of his death, when he used his dying breaths to protect the source and summit of the Catholic faith, may he serve as an inspiration to us all, and may we continue to pray that he will one day be counted among the communion of saints. As that same Nov. 9, 1916 issue of the Denver Catholic Register rightly noted: “Well then, does his life tell us and his death convince us that he merits to dwell forever as a saint of the Church near the tabernacle where he stood an angelic sentinel and a pious minister.”

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”