The Rev. Antonio G. Leon, pastor since 1974 of Jacksonville’s oldest Catholic Church, Immaculate Conception, died Saturday at St. Vincent’s Medical Center. He was 77 and had kidney failure.
“I am saddened by the loss of Father Leon, just two weeks shy of his retirement from Immaculate Conception parish,” said Bishop Victor Galeone, head of the Jacksonville-based Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine. “Father Leon was a bishop’s dream – a hardworking, dependable pastor who loved the Lord and the church passionately and desired to communicate that love to his flock. He will be sorely missed.”
Father Leon was to retire on March 29.
A vigil service will begin at 7 p.m. Friday at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, 121 E. Duval St. Galeone will celebrate the funeral Mass at 10 a.m. Saturday at the church. A reception will follow in the parish hall.
Father Leon will be buried in his native Cordoba, Spain.
He was ordained to the priesthood June 24, 1957, at the age of 25 in Spain. Two years later, the young priest was recruited by Archbishop Joseph Hurley to serve in the Diocese of St. Augustine.
In an interview prepared for the April 2010 issue of the St. Augustine Catholic magazine, Father Leon said, “I wanted to be a priest to save souls and to help people know of God’s love and to lead them to a Christian way of life.”
Father Leon was the spiritual director of Secular Franciscans and chaplain of the Ponce de Leon General Assembly of the Knights of Columbus.
Throughout his priesthood, Father Leon ministered to Hispanic Catholics and from 1974 to 1984 was director of the Hispanic Apostolate. He also was credited with establishing in the diocese the Cursillo Movement, which began in Spain in 1949 as a Christian renewal effort.
In 1974, Father Leon started the first weekly Spanish Mass at Immaculate Conception, where he was the pastor for 36 years. At his parish, he opened a soup kitchen and clothing center for the poor.
Before becoming pastor at Immaculate Conception, Father Leon served at parishes in St. Petersburg, Palatka, Crescent City, Bunnell, Flagler Beach and Palm Coast. He also served as vice president and taught religion from 1959 to 1964 at St. Petersburg Central Catholic High School. source
Fr. Leon was the pastor of the church where I came into the Church. I will greatly miss this awesome and holy priest who gave of himself full for Jesus and his Church. He tended his resignation after having collapsing on Christmas Eve after already having battled the cancer. Here is something from what I have written before on Fr. Leon who appropriately died during the Year for Priests.
I have written about Fr. Leon again and I always enjoy an opportunity to do so once again since this man is truly a faithful and holy priest. Fr. Leon has been serving as the post of Immaculate Conception since June 10th of 1974 and I truly hope that he will continue to do so so long into the foreseeable future. I became a parishioner of Immaculate Conception quite by chance. When my family had first moved to Jacksonville I got lost downtown and drove by this beautifully church and saw that it also had a bookstore. Later we returned to the bookstore as I was still in my searching – but leaning Catholic phase and then had a chance to walk into the church. I instantly fell in love with the architecture and the beautifully high altar and the magnificent panorama of stained glass windows.
As we started to go to Mass there and then my entering RCIA I slowly got to know Fr. Leon. Fr. Leon was born in Cordova, Spain and entered the minor seminary at the age of 12. He was trained by the Jesuits and firmly grounded in the church by both theology, spiritual reading and devotional practices. He said today “Any good I have done as a priest is because I have spent a holy hour each day in front of the Blessed Sacrament.” The Jesuits taught him to do this and he has maintained the devotion for the last fifty years. Though I think he spends more than an hour a day in front of the Tabernacle. I have seen him after morning Mass sit before the Blessed Sacrament as he reads his Breviary. Despite his Jesuit training and his respect for them he felt his calling was as a parish priest and he had volunteered for missionary work in Latin America, but ended up with five other priests in his class in Florida.
Immaculate Conception is a downtown parish and I think if it had been put in less able hands it might have been shut down do to the demographic shifts of people away from downtown area. He had to shut down the parish school due to this, but instead converted the building to act as a soup kitchen and for quite a period of time has been able to fund it totally outside of parish donations. The bookstore I mentioned was a later addition and all profits are used for the care of the poor. During the week there are two daily Masses and on Sunday’s he provides a Indult Latin Mass, two normal Masses and then a Spanish Mass. Once a month the noon Mass is said in both Latin and English in the manner that EWTN does and on First Fridays the Alliance of the Two Hears holds a all night vigil that starts with a Mass and ends with Mass the following day. Again despite the fact that this is a downtown church the Masses are fairly well attended
While part of the population at Masses is made up of predominantly elderly people living in downtown apartment buildings there is a also a large influx of younger families. This is due primarily I believe to the work of Fr. Leon. For one Immaculate Conception is a sort of liturgical oasis where you can go to Mass without worrying about liturgical abuses. Another is that confession is held before every Mass and there is often a line. Though the main reason is that both Fr. Leon and Fr. Keene are good and holy priests and holiness always attracts.
I have grown to love Fr. Leon as a confessor, spiritual director, homilist, and speaker. I love the way that when he talks about Jesus during a homily that he frequently points to the Tabernacle where Jesus dwells sacramentally in the Eucharist. I also love his righteous anger in that sometimes when some sinful action has upset him that he raises his voice and slams his fist on the lectern. In the past I had the opportunity to listen to him teach the secular Carmelites on Carmelite spirituality. He was introduced to St. Therese in the seminary and calls her his “girlfriend”, though he also loves to teach on St. Teresa of Aviala and St. John of the Cross. He teaches though not as one lecturing on the spiritual life of great saints, but as one who shares the mystical spiritual life and the many stories he tells confirms this. I also love the fact that he takes on part of the penance of those he hears confessions from. Once he told us after being in a serious car wreck that he walked away from without too much injury that he would use those pains a penances. When he tells these stories it is not as the braggart, but as one who wants to instruct by personal example and sees himself as just the Donkey that Christ rode into Jerusalem. He is a man of such great faith and spiritual depth that not only does he lead the Carmelites, but he leads the Franciscans along with being involved in the Cursio movement.
He is the very model of a parish priest. A man who has totally given of himself to others and sees his life as a priest totally as gift and displays the joy that goes with it. Like every parish there are factions and there are those that write nasty letters to the bishop about Fr. Leon. There are misunderstandings and other problems, but nothing that will sour Fr. Leon and his own response is to give more of himself.