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A father for the 11th time

Samuel Leonard was married 42 years and had 10 children. Then he became a priest.

NEW BEDFORD - The Rev. Samuel Leonard must be the only Roman Catholic priest who met his wife at an Arthur Murray Dance Studio.

``I literally waltzed her around the room,'' he says. ``And then I made a date with her, which was verboten.'' He was a dance instructor, and dating students was not allowed. So Leonard quit his job. Two months after that first waltz, he asked Mary Steigerwald to marry him.

``It was just intuition. It wasn't sexual attraction or her perfume or the color of her eyes. I just knew the first time I met her that I was going to marry her.''

It was, you could say, a calling.

Leonard had felt a similar calling to the priesthood as a child, and attended a high school seminary in Canton, Ohio. Then he met Mary. They had 10 children and had been married 42 years when she died of ovarian cancer in 1998.

Within six weeks of her death, Leonard says, he was having constant thoughts of becoming a priest. He was 64 years old, the grandfather of 20. He called his diocese in Youngstown, Ohio, and was told that the cutoff age for new priests is 60. He wrote to two seminaries. One said he was too old. He never heard from the other. He went to a Catholic shrine in western Ohio and prayed. ``I asked the Blessed Mother to guide me, and then I put it out of my mind. The door seemed to be closed.''

Ten months later, he got an answer, one he considers to be divinely delivered. A young friend who was entering a seminary knew of Leonard's desire. He'd heard that the Institute of the Incarnate Word, a small order, accepted older candidates. Would Leonard be interested? After a 30-day retreat in July 1999, Leonard decided that he'd been called to the priesthood.

A `life of radical faith'

His calling comes at a time when the Catholic Church is suffering a shortage of priests and reeling from the clergy sex abuse scandal. In the Archdiocese of Boston, only 40 men are training to become priests; the average age of priests is 59, with 187 of the 587 priests older than 65. Between 1988 and 2003, the number of priests in the archdiocese dropped by 37 percent.

The scandal and the priest shortage have provoked debate among Catholics about whether the priesthood should be confined to celibate men. According to a 2002 Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll, 65 percent of Boston-area Catholics believe that the church should accept women as priests, and 74 percent disagree with the church's rule on celibacy.

It is against this backdrop that Leonard was ordained seven weeks ago. He had spent two years in a seminary in Maryland and two more years in residence at St. Kilian Church in New Bedford, where he recently became a parish priest. For the past three weeks, he has been saying Mass daily, along with presiding over funerals and baptisms, visiting the sick, and hearing confessions. The neophyte priest will be 71 years old in two weeks.

He says he doesn't feel like a novice. ``I've been doing this all my life without being ordained,'' he says on a recent day, shortly after a funeral Mass. St. Kilian has an older population, as well as a large Spanish community. Leonard, another priest, and the pastor share duties and the rectory.

The pastor, the Rev. Jose Giunta, says he's pleased to have Leonard's help. ``He's very good at his ministry. People like his homilies and the way he talks to them.'' The Institute of the Incarnate Word, which runs the New Bedford parish, doesn't have an age limit for priests, says Giunta. ``It doesn't matter if he's 20, 30, 40, or 70. If we have signs that God is calling him to be a priest, then age is no problem. Father Leonard lives a life of virtue, a life of prayer.''

It's true that Samuel and Mary Leonard were devout Catholics. They named all of their children after saints. They attended Mass daily and were active in a charismatic prayer group. He was a cantor for 35 years. And in 1979, with 10 kids to feed, Leonard quit his sales job to devote himself to religion full time. He did so with his wife's blessing.

``We both discerned, after four years of prayer, that the Lord was calling us to live as lay people with faith over and above what is normal.'' From then on, he says, he led a ``life of radical faith.'' He had no official title other than cantor, lector, and Eucharistic minister at his church. He didn't knock on doors to try to save people from their sins.

``The opportunities just presented themselves,'' he says. Wearing his clerical garb, Leonard sits in a spartan office next to the large stone church in a blue-collar neighborhood. It's peaceful and hushed, no doubt the opposite of the household where he and Mary raised their family. With a trim white beard and wire rims, Leonard looks younger than his age. He's an intense man, but he laughs easily.

``At my ordination, my oldest son asked me, `What do we call you now, Father Father?' My granddaughter e-mailed me, `Father Grandpa,''' Leonard says with a chuckle.

Working for the Lord

When he quit his job 25 years ago, most of his children were living at home. How did he feed them? ``Providentially,'' he says. ``Even when I was bringing home a paycheck, I thought the Lord was providing that.'' All those years when his wife was pregnant and they were raising children, the couple always gave 10 percent of their gross income to the church.

The Lord aside, who paid the bills? Leonard says people gave him money: Once, a friend gave him a blank check that helped him pay his mortgage and utilities. Another friend told him to buy a used car, and he would pay for it. Leonard found one for $700, but the man wrote a check for $1,000 and told him to use the extra money to buy clothes. ``I used it for the kids,'' he says.

Sometimes, people would comment on his lack of gainful employment. Someone once said to him: ``Who the hell do you think you are? Why don't you get a job?'' Leonard's reply was always the same: He wasn't working ``in the normal sense, but in my own mind I was working for the Lord.''

And how did the kids feel about his unemployment? ``They were not depressed. They were not deprived,'' he says. While he speaks, his hands are folded as if in prayer, resting under his chin.

One daughter says she and her siblings never felt any ill effects from her father quitting his job. ``My parents weren't ones to fret in front of us, and I doubt they did behind closed doors,'' says Jane Nikzad, 43, who still lives in the small town of Massillon, Ohio, where the Leonard children grew up. ``We were never destined to be wealthy. We have always been there for each other, but you don't get a lot of financial support.''

Even when he wasn't pulling in a paycheck, Nikzad says, her father was always working. ``I'd see him with the apron on, cooking and cleaning and changing diapers. He'd write out grocery lists and I'd say, `By the way, Dad, I need a box of tampons.' He was a good father.''

Few, if any, priests have been called on to fetch tampons for their daughters, but Nikzad sees that life experience as a plus for her father's newfound vocation. ``Not only can he talk about the sacrament of marriage, he lived marriage. Not only can he talk about the blessings of children, he had children.'' All 10 of them support his decision to become a priest, and most of them and their children attended his ordination, says Nikzad, a massage therapist.

Leonard agrees that he's well equipped for pastoral counseling about relationship issues. Still, he says firmly, ``I'm not married. I was married.'' He says he ``absolutely supports'' the church's rule on celibacy for priests. ``Now, if there's a choice between my children and the ministry, I have to choose the ministry,'' he says. ``I belong more to God than I do to my family. I don't know if they understand that, but I pray that they will.''

Nikzad, who doesn't attend church regularly, says she doesn't feel her father has chosen the church over his family; he writes letters and e-mails regularly. ``I don't care where my dad is, he holds me in his prayers, and that's the most powerful thing he can do for me,'' she says.

No greater love

Both Nikzad and her father believe that Mary died so that Leonard could become a priest.

``She died in March, and the fall before, she told me she had been praying and that the Lord had asked her to `Give me your life so that I can complete the work in Samuel.' And she said yes,'' says Leonard. ``We were so centered in Jesus that his spirit was working in both of us at the same time. Jesus said, no greater love does anyone have than he lay down his life for another. And that's literally what my wife did.''

He hastens to add that God didn't give his wife cancer. ``God doesn't do that. But he uses circumstances of life to bring about his will.'' In fact, he says, his wife often told him he'd make a wonderful priest. ``I'm sure she knew this was going to happen.''

As a priest, Leonard had to take vows of chastity and poverty. Having been poor before, Leonard says that vow isn't a huge adjustment; he pretty much just gave up his car. The same goes for sex: ``My wife and I gave that up a long time ago because of her illness.''

In conversation, the word ``sin'' often comes up, particularly when he discusses the sex abuse scandal or gay marriage. Does he himself have any sins? He pauses. ``I can be very obnoxious,'' he says. ``I may have to repent later.''

In his new life, Leonard says, he's ``absolutely happy'' but occasionally gets lonely. ``But I'm not lonesome,'' he stresses. He last saw his family in March, at his ordination, but doesn't know when he'll see them again. His son Peter, who lives in Marlborough, sometimes visits. For fun, Leonard says, he prays. He laughs. ``It's true,'' he says. He has also become the cook in the rectory, since he did so much of it for his family.

He recently went to a movie theater for the first time in 20 years, to see ``The Passion of the Christ.'' He says he prayed throughout the film.

Vivian Oliveira, a parishioner and part-time secretary at St. Kilian Church, approves of Leonard's new vocation. ``I think it's great that somebody his age wants to live a life like this,'' she says. ``It's good for the community because he knows the problems and joys of life and family.''

What would he say to critics who might believe that Leonard has had it both ways: He had his family, and he still became a priest? ``I'd say, by the grace of God,'' he replies.

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