Still serving his Church, her people and loving it

Msgr. John Leitner

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Retired Msgr. John Leitner still actively serves the people of God, especially the residents of Villa Ventura in south KC, where he lives. His love for his vocation, and people, drives him.

He celebrates Mass at 4 p.m., Saturdays, fulfilling the Sunday obligation, in the activity room at Villa Ventura, and at 10 a.m. Tuesdays, Fridays and Holy days, in the chapel. He also leads the Rosary on Thursdays mornings, communal and occasional personal penance services, and a communal Anointing of the Sick and Elderly each July for the residents. He owns his own vestments and uses the chalice and other altar furnishings he received at his ordination 62 years ago.

He maintains a relationship with nearby St. Thomas More Parish. In an article written by Julie McKowen of Senior Star, the managing company of Villa Ventura and other senior residences around the country, Father Justin Hoye, pastor, described Msgr. Leitner as a “gentle soul, very gracious. He has a very calm presence … very fatherly …what people want in a priest.” Father Hoye said his parish provides Msgr. Leitner with the bread and wine for communion; Mass books; palms and ashes during Lent, and he takes up a collection for the parish at the 4 p.m., Saturday Mass.

A native Kansas Citian born in 1929, John Leitner grew up in St. Peter’s Parish, where he was baptized, and later received the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation. While attending St. Peter’s School, John became acquainted with an older student, Billy Baum, later familiar to local Catholics as Cardinal William Baum.

A teacher at St. Peter’s, Mercy Sister Bertille Gallagher, gave him painting lessons on Saturdays through Bishop Hogan High School and later into college.

He had become friends with Father Patrick Hanley, assistant at St. Peter’s and, during his senior year at Hogan, “Father Pat” asked him if he might be interested in the priesthood. “He took me to St. John’s Seminary, then at 73rd just east of Paseo”, he recalled. “That was it, just what I wanted. St. John’s is where I went after Hogan.”

He studied three years at St. John’s, the usual two plus an extra year of Latin. From there, he matriculated at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, earning degrees in philosophy and Theology. He was ordained by Archbishop Edwin O’Hara in 1955 at St. Peter’s Church.

Father Leitner’s first assignment was at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, then considered a rural parish in Hickman Mills. A new brick church was completed during his first year. In May of his second year at St. Catherine’s, the F-5 tornado known as the Ruskin Heights tornado tore through the neighborhood. Eighty-five parish families lost everything. The church hall was turned into a kitchen, serving up to 2,000 people daily. It was also a drop-off point for clothing, furniture and monetary donations.

He said St. Catherine’s was “very interesting,” and 62 years later is still grateful to Msgr. Joseph Ruysser, his first pastor. “He was very good to me,” Msgr. Leitner said. “He taught me a lot about parish work.”

Assigned to St. Therese Little Flower parish in 1960, he took up his parish duties with alacrity. Monsignor Michael McAuliffe, then St. Therese pastor (later Bishop of Jefferson City), “shepherded an excellent parish,” Msgr. Leitner said. He also recalled designing a temporary altar for the church, facing the congregation, in the first years after Vatican II as parishes absorbed the changes it brought about.

The parish was also near Swope Ridge Nursing Home, where his father was a resident. Father Leitner was close enough to pick up his mother and take her to visit him, so she wouldn’t have to take the bus.

In 1967, he was assigned to pastor St. Mary’s in Higginsville. The church’s sanctuary was redone under Father Leitner’s guidance. He also served as administrator of St. Boniface Mission in Corder. In 1971, he was assigned to Holy Cross Parish in Kansas City.

Holy Cross was a busy parish, he recalled. One of his first acts was to start the annual parish St. Joseph’s Table, long a tradition among the Italian families in the parish. He remembered how lovely the tables were.

He recalled the dreaded Report Card days when he would call students by name to approach the teacher’s desk where he was seated. “I would glance over the marks and grades and comment on them if they were very good or very bad, before handing it to them. I suspect it made them very nervous.”

In 1977, he was scheduled to fly to Europe. His widowed mother was a concern, as she needed help with many daily activities. He was deeply saddened when she unexpectedly died shortly before he was to leave, but also relieved of the worry.

The next year he became pastor of St. John LaLande Parish in Blue Springs. “It was a younger crowd there,” he said, grinning, “and I broke in several associates — Fathers Phil Egan, Joe Powers and Msgr. Richard Dierkes, the pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral who died a few years ago (2008).”

He also supervised a renovation of the school building and said monthly Masses for the Franciscan Sisters of the Holy Eucharist who taught at the school.

In 1986, Father Leitner was appointed pastor of St. Gregory Barbarigo in Maryville. He was to spend 10 years at the parish, in charge of the church and school, supervising a gymnasium addition, and enjoying the work.

“All my parishes were nice parishes,” he said, “with interesting people to work with. But when I was beginning to think about retirement, I requested a small parish without a school. Bishop Boland assigned me to St. Joseph the Worker in Independence.”

St. Joseph the Worker sits on a working farm dating back to the 19th century. He recalled the corn and soybean fields, the church framed by pecan, walnut and persimmon trees, and an old barn. The original farmhouse burned in the early 1990s. Father Charles Tobin, pastor at that time, had a new rectory built which Msgr. Leitner remembered as beautiful. A rose garden dedicated to the memory of Marie Lenz, the woman who donated the land and the house to the diocese and a shrine to the Blessed Mother under the trees … a gentle place to retire from.

He retired in 2004.

He moved into Villa Ventura in June, 2004. A cousin had lived there, so Msgr. Leitner checked it out, finding it pleasant and comfortable with a reasonable monthly rent. “I’ve lived here 13 years,” he said. Early on he worked out arrangements with the management to bring the Word of God to the Catholic residents. He also took up painting again. “My walls are getting very crowded with my work,” he said. “Maybe I should start giving some of it away.”

He was one of 10 priests surprised in 2006, when Bishop Robert Finn announced that they would henceforth be called Monsignor. The Vatican decree signed by Pope Benedict XVI marked the first time since 1968 that priests of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese were so honored. Msgr. Leitner was named an honorary Chaplain to his Holiness, one of the three ranks of Monsignors.

These days he stays busy with his ministry at Villa Ventura, attending events like the annual Priest Jubilee dinner at the Catholic Center, making and keeping new friends at Villa Ventura, painting, gardening, remembering and sharing stories of old friends who have died and times when he was a young priest.

As he told Julie McKowen, “It’s part of my vocation to proclaim the Gospel and to help people get to heaven. Of course, it’s up to them to do things to get there, but I hope my ministry and friendship will help them.” He means it.

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Thursday
October 19, 2017
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph