Memorial Mass For Fr Timothy Leonard

By Fr Pat Baker

Fr Tim Leonard
Fr Timothy Leonard (1893 – 1929)

Fr Timothy Leonard was ordained in 1918 for the Diocese of Limerick, Ireland, and joined the newly-established Society of St Columban that year. He was in the first group of Columbans to be assigned to China in 1920. He worked with Columban Co-founder Fr Edward Galvin for four years in Hanyang where Fr Galvin became the first bishop in 1927. Then he was assigned to Ireland in 1924 for two years of mission appeal work. He became a well-known figure, riding his bicycle from parish to parish in all kinds of weather.

Father Tim returned to Hanyang in 1926 and in 1928 was a member of the first group of Columbans to go to Nancheng where Columban Fr Patrick Cleary became the first bishop in 1938. While saying Mass there on the morning of 17 July 1929 a group of Communist bandits stormed into the church and attacked Fr Leonard. His vestments were torn off him, the ciborium with consecrated hosts was snatched from his hands and the hosts scattered on the floor and trampled on.

Father Tim was a big, strong but normally gentle man. Seeing this terrible sacrilege, he upbraided the bandits. One of them smashed him in the mouth, then he was dragged bleeding outside. He was thrown to the ground and hacked to death. His head was nearly severed. He was the first Columban to be killed in China. His death was a terrible shock to all the Columbans in China and elsewhere, as well as to all the Chinese who knew him.

A cousin of the Columban priest, John Leonard, had details about Father Tim’s original burial place and wanted to arrange a more suitable place.

John had come to the Philippines in July this year to visit the graves of two Columbans on behalf of their families whom he knew in Ireland.  One was Fr John O'Brien, also from County Limerick, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1950, aged only 26 and who is buried in Olongapo City, and Fr Rufus Halley, murdered in 2001 in Lanao del Sur and buried in Cagayan de Oro City, Mindanao.

John Leonard alerted Fr Dan O'Malley, Acting Regional Director at the time and also from Limerick, that 17 July would be the 84th anniversary of the death of Father Tim. John said that he would like to attend the Community Mass on that day, if possible. He would be willing to share some background on Father Tim, his early days in Limerick and in China. John has gone to a lot of trouble to locate the original burial place and to have the remains transferred to a more suitable site with a Celtic cross and an engraved marble slab with details.

Because we had two students from China in our Formation House in Cubao, Quezon City, Father Dan suggested we might have the Mass there. It was arranged for 6:30 pm on Thursday 17 July.  Father Dan was the main celebrant, assisted by Fr Raymond Husband, Rector of Formation. The ten students were present, plus some Columban Missionaries and Columban Sisters. One of them, Sr Mary Ita O'Brien, is from Limerick.

John shared very eloquently about Father Tim. It was a moving experience for all present to feel such a close connection with this first Columban martyr and with the other Columban pioneers in China. It was good for the two Chinese students to hear this story as it helped them to understand why we still have such a passion for mission in China.
Much informal sharing took place during the dinner that was served by the Formation House staff after the Mass. Then we were shown a ten-minute DVD with some historical footage of the very early days in China. Father Tim appeared in one short clip, getting into a rickshaw.