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

Aaron Lambert

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: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.