Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Credible Witness: Leo Heinrichs O.F.M.
By Heather King
Servant of God Father Leo Heinrichs, O.F.M. (1867–1908), “Martyr of the Eucharist,” was shot and killed at the altar rail while distributing Communion in Denver, Colorado. The assassin, a mentally deranged Sicilian anarchist, harbored an obsessive hatred of priests.
Born on the feast of the Assumption in Oestrich, Germany, Father Heinrichs was named Joseph at birth. Upon joining the Franciscans as a friar, he adopted the monastic name Brother Leo and immigrated to Paterson, New Jersey, with his chapter. He was ordained there on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, 1890.
For the next seventeen years, he served at various churches in New York and New Jersey. He was known for his devotion to our Lady, his charity to the poor and love for children, and, at Saint Bonaventure’s in Paterson, for tending ill and dying smallpox victims in spite of the danger to himself.
Then, in 1907, he was assigned to Saint Elizabeth of Hungary parish in Denver, Colorado. At that point, he had not seen his family in over twenty years. But though he was given permission to visit Germany, he put the trip off for another year, preferring to stay in Denver and prepare a class of children for their first Holy Communion.
Only a week before his death, Father Heinrichs met with a parish group called the Young Ladies’ Sodality. “If I had my choice of a place where I would die,” he told them, “I would choose to die at the feet of the Blessed Virgin.”
The first two Sunday Masses at Saint Elizabeth of Hungary were at 6:00 and 8:00 am, the former being known as the “Workingman’s Mass.” Father Heinrichs was scheduled to say the 8 o’clock Mass but asked his fellow priest, Father Wulstan Workman, to switch with him as he had a meeting to attend.
The three hundred or so parishioners that morning included Giuseppe Alia, a fifty-year-old Italian immigrant and avowed anarchist. During the Communion rite, Alia approached the altar rail and knelt. When Father Henrichs placed the Eucharist on his tongue, Alia spat it out—he would later claim it had burned his tongue—drew a revolver, and shot the priest through the heart.
With his dying breath, per the account of a young altar server that morning, Father Heinrichs reached out a weak hand, restored two scattered hosts to the ciborium, then expired. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood nearby, thereby fulfilling his last wish.
He was administered last rites by Father Workman and buried at Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemetery in Totowa, New Jersey.
Alia was arrested, jailed, and convicted, never expressing a word of remorse. He bit, snarled, and delivered logically incoherent harangues, inveighing: “I have a grudge against all priests in general. They are all against the workingman…my only regret is that I could not shoot the whole bunch of priests in the church.”
His last words, before being hanged at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City, were “Death to the priests!”
As for Father Heinrichs, the coroner found chains of steel wire, studded with spikes and rusted with blood, coiled tightly around his arms and waist: a form of mortification that this workingman’s priest had apparently practiced for years, possibly in an effort to tame his quick temper.
The process of beatification was opened in Rome in 1938. Pilgrims continue to flock to Father Heinrichs’ grave.