COLUMBIA—When Msgr. Leigh Lehocky’s father was stationed at Fort Jackson during World War II, his mother frequently attended Mass at St. Peter Church on Assembly Street while she was expecting his birth.
“So in a way, St. Peter was part of my life before I was even born,” said the parish’s longtime pastor.
It’s a heartwarming coincidence considering that Msgr. Lehocky ended up spending more than 30 years of his priesthood at the historic Columbia church, 28 of them as pastor. He also served there as an associate from 1969-72.
That era will come to an end Dec. 31 when he officially retires and moves on to the next stage of his life. He does not have any specific plans, except to most likely move to the mountains, and he said now is an appropriate time.
“I know it’s the right thing, and I need to shift gears,” he said. “It’s the right time for the parish. We don’t have any debt, no big building programs going on, things are in a good state overall and the way they ought to be. It’s time to give someone younger than me a chance to use their gifts in leading St. Peter’s.”
Msgr. Lehocky was born in Augusta, Ga., but his family moved to South Carolina shortly afterward because of his father’s military service. He attended St. Peter School for a few years and worshipped in the church with his parents as a child. He vividly remembers the days when it was a true “neighborhood parish,” serving people who lived close to downtown Columbia before the city started to grow in the ’60s and more people moved to the suburbs.
He grew up in neighborhoods near downtown Columbia, graduating from Dreher High School and then attending the University of South Carolina for a while. It was there, he said, that he first thought seriously about becoming a priest.
Father Frederick Masad and the late Father Alfred F. Kamler, former pastor of St. Joseph Church in Columbia, encouraged him and he eventually went to St. Bernard Seminary in Alabama and studied theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
He was ordained in 1968.
Msgr. Lehocky has worked at churches all over the diocese, serving at St. Anthony in Florence, St. Mary in Greenville, Blessed Sacrament in Charleston, St. John in North Charleston, and Prince of Peace in Taylors.
During his years at St. Peter, Msgr. Lehocky helped the parish grow into a place of faith. Rooted in Columbia’s historic downtown, their presence is also felt in many surrounding counties and communities in the Midlands.
“Our membership includes people who live in 46 different zip codes,” he said. “Our members are a wonderful blend of racial diversity, different economic situations, and different political perspectives. I find that delightful.”
In 1987, only three years after he became pastor, Msgr. Lehocky hosted Pope John Paul II, who came to the church during his visit to Columbia.
“That was something I never ever imagined I’d experience as a priest,” he said. “I stood at the front door and welcomed him. It was a chance for me to just watch and enjoy and be excited that he was here.”
Under his leadership, several large building projects were completed, including an extensive renovation of the church and construction of the new parish hall, the Cardinal Bernardino Center, in 2007.
Msgr. Lehocky also became known for his dedication to ecumenical outreach and for helping make St. Peter a beacon of help and mercy for the city’s homeless and needy. He is proud to describe the parish’s many social ministries run by dedicated volunteers. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, for instance, works with other area churches and volunteers to host monthly meals for the homeless plus annual large meals at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.
“In 30 years of my vocation as a music minister, I have never met someone who walks the walk the way Msgr. Lehocky does,” said Mark Husey, director of music and liturgy at St. Peter.
“He frequently reminded us that our lives are one continuous journey home to God, and we get to enjoy each other’s company as traveling companions along the way. I cherish and will miss his discipline, humor and humility,” Husey said.
Msgr. Lehocky looks back with pride on his role at a parish he sees as an oasis of faith and God’s beauty “amidst concrete and asphalt and busy cars.”
“I’m just proud to have been a part of this parish,” he said. “My own faith and life have been nourished a good deal just by being here.”