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Msgr. William Leach visited St. Margaret Mary Alacoque parishioner Shirley Brown. Msgr. Leach gave her the Eucharist during the visit.
Msgr. William Leach visited St. Margaret Mary Alacoque parishioner Shirley Brown. Msgr. Leach gave her the Eucharist during the visit.

Msgr. Leach, parishioners bring joy to nursing homes

A joy-filled visit

On his rounds at three nursing homes and assisted-living centers Oct. 12, Msgr. William J. Leach stopped in to see Bob Schmitt at Nazareth Living Center. Schmitt, resting in bed, popped his head up and enthusiastically greeted the priest from his parish.

They chatted about the daily visits Schmitt receives from his wife and other topics. Schmitt was amazed at the lengths Msgr. Leach, 86, goes to in order to visit parishioners. He followed Schmitt to Meramec Bluffs, the Quarters of Des Peres and Mercy Rehab before Nazareth.

“You can’t hide from me,” Msgr. Leach joked.

A few minutes later, the retired priest who lives at St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Parish in Oakville gave Communion to Jacqueline DuFaux in a wheelchair. “God is watching over you. He has a good place for you up in heaven,” Msgr. Leach said to her.

Msgr. Leach brings Communion and visits parishioners four days a week in nursing homes or in assisted-living facilities. He is accompanied by one of about 25 parishioners who take turns as drivers and often visit the residents as well.

‘An act of charity’

Earlier in the afternoon, Msgr. Leach and his driver that day, Bill Berkbigler, visited patients at Southview Assisted Living and Memory Care in Affton. Among those he brought Communion to were Tony and Mary Valdes, who live in an assisted-living unit. Mary returned recently was discharged from a hospital where she was treated for illness. “Was that the reason, or did you just want to get out for a while?” Msgr. Leach quipped.

Msgr. Leach told them a story about the reception after his first Mass at St. Peter Church in St. Charles after his ordination 60 years ago. A next-door neighbor who knew him as a child told him that she always thought he’d end up in reform school, Msgr. Leach recalled. “I said, ‘I did. I went into the seminary,’” he joked.

Fourteen years ago, Msgr. Leach came to the parish. “He did a good job. Still does,” Tony said.

The couple related how much they enjoy Southview where they have few responsibilities and get a lot of help .

It’s “an act of charity” to make the visits, Msgr. Leach said. “It helps them to realize the people of the parish are still thinking about and praying for them.”

He said he’s fortunate to have the ability to do the work. He had a stroke in the spring of 2011 while celebrating Mass at St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and didn’t know if he’d ever return to his priestly duties or if he’d even survive. Doctors operated on his brain twice. When he awoke at St. Anthony’s Medical Center, he asked where he was and was told he was in the hospital. He felt fine until he realized he couldn’t move his limbs.

“I said, ‘Lord, whatever you want to do with me is OK,’” Msgr. Leach recalled. “Then I knew instantly I was going to get better.”

The experience reinforced his deep faith. “I always tell people that we don’t think so, but God is still in charge.”

‘A joy to be around’

Msgr. Leach celebrates early morning Mass during the week, then sometimes will go out and play golf with younger and spryer Deacon Andy Daus “and beats him like a drum,” Berkbigler said. He enjoys the schoolchildren and adults. “He’s just involved in a lot of things,” Berkbigler said. “Instead of taking it easier, he’s always looking for something else to do, somewhere else to help. He’s a joy to be around.”

Msgr. Leach, a St. Charles native, was ordained in 1958 by Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter. His first assignment was in the missionary apostolate in southern Missouri. He served as associate pastor at four parishes before being named pastor of St. Jude Parish in Maryland Heights from 1979-84 and then was pastor of St. John the Baptist “Gildehaus” Parish in Villa Ridge from 1984-2001. He served as senior priest in service at St. Peter Parish in St. Charles before coming to St. Margaret Mary in 2004.

He was ordained with 21 other men, 18 in all for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Msgr. Leach had no television growing up. As a child, he knew an elderly man who traveled from Missouri to Arizona, a trip that took several months on a wagon through forests. He was at the movies as a 9-year-old when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. When he and his friends heard that a harbor was attacked, they thought it was a harbor on the river in St. Louis. “I didn’t even know what Pearl Harbor was,” he said.

‘Inspiring’

On his days as a driver, St. Margaret Mary parishioner Dave Stringer often accompanies the parish priest inside the nursing homes, and he enjoys it. He recognizes some of them from church and has become acquainted with a few, including a man living at the Missouri Veterans Home in north St. Louis County.

Getting volunteers to accompany Msgr. Leach is easy, Stringer said, because “it’s so enjoyable.”

Dave Koch also volunteers. “I don’t know if I’ve ever known a priest who had so much faith,” Koch said, citing Msgr. Leach’s response to his stroke and his compassion with nursing home residents who are struggling with health issues.

The work comes naturally to Msgr. Leach, Koch said. “It’s just like breathing. He goes.”

St. Margaret Mary Alacoque is a large parish, so Msgr. Leach’s personal visits are a big help to the pastor and associate pastor, Koch said. “He’s so inspiring. He has so much enthusiasm.”

Msgr. Leach praised the parishioners who volunteer to accompany him and parish secretary Sue Brandt and Stringer for helping to schedule them. “I’m so thankful for them. It’s a sacrifice on their part. Otherwise, I’d just be stuck here at the rectory,” he said.

Priest-to-priest visit

Msgr. William J. Leach brought Communion in a visit to Nazareth Living Center on Oct. 12. Among them was an archdiocesan priest, Father Donald Koch.

Father Koch was resting in a chair. “You don’t have to get up and dance,” Msgr. Leach said. “If you’re like me you don’t want to do that.”

They chatted for a bit, then Msgr. Leach said, “I’ll give you a blessing and let you know God is going to watch out for you. And keep saying prayers for us.”

The two priests then discussed the need for prayers. Msgr. Leach noted that the only people who don’t need them are already in heaven.

When people ask him how he’s doing, Msgr. Leach often tells them he’s feeling somewhere between great and super. “The reason for that is heaven’s waiting for us. Why shouldn’t we feel great?” he said.

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