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Newsletter of Mater Dei Seminary
March 2002

The Martyr of Denver: Father Leo Heinrichs, OFM

By Glenn D. Kittler

People could not understand the man’s hatred. On the Sunday morning of February 23, 1908, Giuseppe Alia entered St. Elizabeth’s Church in Denver, a revolver hidden under his coat. The 6 o’clock Mass was being offered. Alia waited until time for Communion, then went to the rail with the others. When the Host was placed on his tongue, Alia spat it out, then shot the priest in the heart and killed him.

Alia was captured as he ran from the church. Weeks later, just before his execution for murder, he said, “Provided he who died was a priest, anything else matters little.”

The city was stunned. It was difficult to believe that a man could hate so much that he would kill another for no other reason than that his victim was a priest. Alia belonged to a secret society of anarchists — men who despised all forms of authority, especially the Catholic Church. Out of delusions of freedom they attacked the one institution that had fought for freedom since its first days.

Alia’s victim was Father Leo Heinrichs, a Franciscan who had come to America a few years before as a missionary. Born in Germany in 1867, Father Leo had studied in Holland after Chancellor von Bismarck restricted the Church’s activities in his homeland. He was ordained in Newark, N.J., then worked in various Eastern cities before his assignment to Denver. Not until after his death did even his confreres realize what a holy man he had been.

He practiced remarkable penances. He knew he had a quick temper; to control it he wore leather pronged bands around his arms and waist as reminders of charity. Nobody knew this until he was prepared for burial. It was discovered that he did not use his bed, but instead slept on a plain board hidden in his room. He slept little, spending most of his nights translating spiritual books from German into English. They, too, were found after his death.

Children and the sick were his constant concern. As a pastor, he insisted that the utmost care be given to the proper training of children. During a small-pox epidemic, he virtually moved into the quarantine world and spent endless hours comforting the sick and assisting the dying.

He seemed to know that his death was near. A few days previous, he had commented that he wanted to die at Mary’s feet. When he was shot it was at the foot of Our Lady’s altar that he fell. Also, he normally went to confession on Thursdays; the Saturday evening before his death he asked his confessor to hear him.

But it was later that the most unusual events occurred. In 1911, his remains were transferred to a new grave at Paterson, N.J., and it was found that though the coffin, its trimmings and his garb had all decayed in three years, he himself was untouched by the passage of time. Then reports arrived from people who claimed their prayers had been answered directly through his intercession. The reports increased and in 1926 preliminary investigations toward Father Heinrich’s beatification were begun.

Thus, in a unique way, a burst of hate unleashed a flood of love. Because one man’s heart was owned by Satan, a martyr’s crown went to another whose soul belonged to God and who may well one day become known to the world as St. Leo of Denver.

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