By JOEY REISTROFFER
SPARTANBURG — Father Gene Leonard came to Jesus Our Risen Savior about Christmas time 12-and-a-half years ago. He has been a gift and a blessing ever since.
Right before Father Leonard arrived in Spartanburg, the Diocese of Charleston was trying to establish a parish on the west side because St. Paul’s downtown was bursting at the seams. Diocesan authorities decided to build a new church and create a new parish to alleviate the crowding at St. Paul’s.
The transition, however, was a bit turbulent.
Nan Breon remembers those times well. She said when the parish started out, they celebrated Mass in the basement of the rectory.
Then Father Lenoard became pastor and began to build a parish, both structurally and spiritually — not an easy job in a growing community with many voices and many more ideas.
It was a “challenging and rewarding” time, Breon said. “It’s not an easy thing to do, and he has handled it all,” she said.
“We expect our priests to be everything,” added Breon. “He works hard to meet all our needs. He makes an effort to know everybody’s name, and he can do that. It’s remarkable. He’s 76 years old.”
Remembering the first names of all his parishioners is one way Father Leonard set forth establishing a loving parish family.
He once told a story about a young woman who had left the Catholic Church because she felt the community was too cold and standoffish. She felt left out, so she fled to another church.
Father Leonard said she missed celebrating the Eucharist, however, and she needed to find a Catholic parish that would welcome her with a warm embrace.
That is what Father Leonard has done at Jesus Christ Our Risen Savior. He has opened his arms wide to his flock so they feel needed.
Jesus Christ Our Risen Savior is not just a place to celebrate Mass on Sundays; it is a Christian community, a family all week long. And that is a true testament to Father Leonard’s leadership.
“He’s the kindest, most caring person,” Patty Adams said. Her husband, Rick, added, “He’s been a terrific priest and a great friend.”
One way Father Leonard draws his parishioners together is through the children.
When parents notice their priest has a special place in his heart for their children, they know their pastor truly is leading his flock closer to Christ.
“He gives audience to children,” Dan Shook said. “He takes the time to listen and wants to be with them. That’s one of his strengths. He loves them, and they love him back.”
That is why one of Father Leonard’s priorities was to build educational facilities for the children. He wanted them to learn about Christ in a comfortable setting. He also stresses the importance of Vacation Bible School. It shows because the attendance of the children each year is amazing.
“There are so many things here for children,” said Corrine Sturm, wife of Deacon Bob Sturm, who has helped Father Leonard develop the life of the parish for several years.
Yes, children are important to Father Leonard, even the tiniest of children, the unborn. In a society where many people accept abortion as the norm, Father Leonard stands up for the unborn. He’s not afraid to say abortion is wrong. He respects the sanctity of life, and he tells his flock right from the pulpit that abortion is a crime against God.
And they know he wants them to get involved in life’s issues and activities.
He’s made it “a lively parish,” Shook said.
In 12-and-a-half years, Father Leonard has brought a parish together in unity with Christ.
Now it is time for him to retire. June 28 was his official last day as pastor of Jesus Christ Our Risen Savior. He does so knowing that he has planted the seeds to a stronger faith for many in his parish. Father Leonard has put prayer life on solid footing in Spartanburg.
To celebrate his retirement, the parish threw a picnic for him at the church. The parking lot was packed with cars, and the field was filled with families. They all wanted to tell Father Leonard thanks for so many years of spiritual and moral guidance.
And once again, as a flock of youngsters came up to hug him, Father Leonard bent down and took the time to hug and love them right back.
Then he said to all who had turned out for the celebration: “I really enjoyed talking with you, eating with you, laughing with you.”
It was a simple goodbye, packed with a lot of memories.
Father Leonard will have plenty of time to say so long individually to his flock. He was supposed to retire on June 28, but the diocese has not found a priest to take his place. So he will continue to celebrate the life of our Lord at Jesus Christ Our Risen Savior a little bit longer.
That is a blessing and a gift to the people of his parish.