By Diana Hammell
Father Greg Leif, pastor of St. Mary Church in Caledonia, will be celebrating 35 years as a priest this month.
While still a youth, Leif worked with a man at Boy Scout camps and this man later became a priest. During Leif’s senior year in high school, this priest invited Leif to visit a seminary one day during the summer just to check it out. If Greg would just visit the seminary, the priest told him that he would never approach him about becoming a priest ever again. The rector at the seminary invited Leif to return in February when the students were there. “I told my mom I would be back Saturday as I left on Friday, but a snow storm followed me from Austin to Winona and not only could I not get out on Saturday, I was lucky to get out on Sunday night to go back for classes in Austin. During that snow storm something said to me, ‘Are you willing to serve?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ I told them I would give it one year, and seven years later I was ordained.”
Leif spent his undergraduate years at St. Mary’s College in Winona, then went on to Immaculate Heart Seminary at St. Mary’s, Winona, then theology school at St. Paul Seminary, St. Paul.
Fr. Leif started his career as a priest in 1978 at St. Mary’s in Caledonia, then he spent four years in Winona at St. Mary’s College. “Then the Bishop asked me to go to St. John’s in Rochester for three years, then for two years I was the chaplain at the college at St. Theresa,” Leif said. “I became a pastor the first time in 1987 for 360 days at Sacred Heart in Brewster. A year later I was moved to St. Gabriel’s in Fulda, then nine and a half years at Sacred Heart in Adams and Johnsburg. I came to St. Mary’s in Caledonia Jan. 5, 2004, and then took over Brownsville July 1, 2005.”
A couple of months ago, Fr. Leif was informed by Bishop John Quinn that he would be leaving St. Mary’s at the end of June.
Fr. Leif quoted former Bishop Loras Waters in the church bulletin, “If a priest is good, he must be shared; if not, they must be spared.” For the parishioners of St. Mary’s, it’s not so easy when they’re the ones who must do the sharing, but that is what they’ll do as their beloved priest sets off to Sacred Heart in Waseca beginning the first of July.
Fr. Leif and Sister Michaeline have formed a partnership that has spread their ministry beyond the steps of St. Mary’s Church. Through all that they do for their own parishioners, they’ve touched much of Caledonia in a spreading web of care and concern.
“Sr. Michaeline has a real gift of collaboration,” Fr. Leif said. “I think she has been the real heart of the parish. I’m her third priest here at St. Mary’s. She started with Don Schmitz, she broke me in and now she’s going to have to break in a new one.”
Parishioner Jeff Von Arx told Fr. Leif, “Father, you’re leaving when we just got you broken in how we like you.”
“I really like him,” Dianne Schuldt said. “I’ll miss him. He has such great messages, and his baptisms are so good and so are his funerals – he’s so caring.”
“Fr. Leif has been a gift in so many different ways, his love of life, his love of the the Eucharist and deep prayerful spirituality, which has led him to dedicate his life to peace and justice issues,” Sister Michaeline said. “He has challenged all of us to be keenly aware of the poor and needy both locally as well as those living in Appalacia in eastern Kentucky. Fr. Lief has taken parishioners to David, Ky. every year he has been here to help restore family homes. He not only encouraged youth and adults to go, he went and joined in the labor.
“He is passionate about protecting our environment in many practical ways like not using plastic, recyling and being conscious of caring for our land, water and air. He longs for families and all countries to work together for peace.
“His life of simplicity comes not only in his words but also in his actions. Fr. Greg’s love of his calling to priesthood is so evident being comfortable with people of all ages, from the youngest child to the oldest in our parish. For me, Fr Leif’s leaving is very difficult. He has taught me so much, and it has been a gift to minister beside him.”
Hatch, match, patch and dispatch
Although many in town feel an affinity for Fr. Leif and Sr. Michaeline, Fr. Leif only recently discovered this for himself when a person told him that they’re sorry he’s leaving and will miss him. When Leif didn’t understand why this person – who is not a part of St. Mary’s Church – would miss him, he was told, “But Father, you care about us.”
A priest becomes drawn into the families under his wing by visiting the sick, anointing the sick, listening to confessions, giving spiritual direction, presiding over first communions and confirmations and performing baptisms, weddings and funerals. He especially enjoys baptisms. The families feel a thrill when Fr. Leif hoists the infants, large and small, up into the air as high as his arms can reach. They never cry – they just gaze over the congregation with serious looks. Fr. Leif said that in the business, they call it hatch, match, patch and dispatch.
St. Mary’s School
The students at St. Mary’s School upon hearing the news that Fr. Leif would be leaving said that they hoped that the new priest would give high fives like Leif does. “I assured them that he would very much enjoy them,” Leif said.
Leif said that an important part of the ministry in Caledonia is the connection with the school. He is often present in the hallways and draws the children in like a magnet. He said that while joining the children for lunch he finds out a lot of what’s going on in town – things like “my mom’s going to have a baby.”
He’ll be involved in the school in Waseca as well, a school that goes up through fourth grade.
Stays physically active
While decorating the church for special seasons, it’s Fr. Leif who is scrambling around like a monkey high up on the scaffolding while everyone else holds their breath as they watch.
It’s often that while driving on a country road a traveler will receive a wave from Fr. Leif as he engages in one his regular runs, and if the opportunity arises he enjoys cutting wood. “Mostly I like to run and canoe, and occasionally I’ll bike,” Leif said. “I enjoy reading books, and I like movies that make you think.”
He will remember the characters
“I enjoyed being here in Caledonia,” Leif said. “I was pleased that the Bishop allowed me to stay beyond my six year term. I have grown very attached to the people here and it’s very difficult to leave.
“I’m incredibly grateful to the staff of the parish and the school.” Leif said. “Many people say that the parish has done well and I say it’s because the people came together and I simply observed what they did. But, they did all the hard work.”
35 year anniversary and farewell
An event is planned in celebration of Fr. Leif’s 35 years as a priest, and now it’s become a farewell to him as well. It will begin at the 5:10 Mass on Saturday, June 22. After Mass a roast beef dinner will be served and there will be a short program in St. Mary’s School auditorium.