108 Years Ago, This Priest's Murder at Mass Shocked the U.S.

(photo: Register Files)

When you read a headline about priests being murdered at Mass, who comes to mind? Almost certainly, you think of Fr. Jacques Hamel, who died last month at the hands of Muslim terrorists during Mass in the small French town of Saint Etienne-du-Rouvray, in Normandy.

If your mind stretches beyond the horror of Fr. Hamel's death, his throat slashed by ISIS sympathizers, then you probably think next of Blessed Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. Archbishop Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence on March 24, 1980. Just one day before his death, Romero had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to stop aiding the government's repression and violation of basic human rights, and to instead obey the laws of God. For that, he was shot while praying at the altar.

The priest I have in mind, though, is not Father Hamel, not Archbishop Romero, but a humble Franciscan priest who served as pastor of St. Elizabeth's in Denver, Colorado in 1907-1908.

Fr. Leo Heinrichs was born in Germany but fled persecution under Otto von Bismarck's Kulturkampf, arriving in the United States in the 1880s. With his fellow seminarians, he settled at St. Bonaventure's Friary in Paterson, New Jersey. He professed his final vows on December 8, 1890, and was ordained to the priesthood in July 1891.

Fr. Heinrichs served at several parishes in New York and New Jersey before being assigned to St. Elizabeth's in Denver in 1907.  During his tenure at St. Bonaventure Friary in Paterson, New Jersey, a smallpox epidemic broke out; and Fr. Heinrichs spent many hours to the sick and dying at a nearby “pest house,” the name given to hospitals where persons afflicted with communicable diseases were isolated from the general public.

At St. Elizabeth's, just a week before his death, Fr. Heinrichs spoke at a meeting of the Young Ladies' Sodality. “If I had my choice of a place where I would die,” he said, “I would choose to die at the feet of the Blessed Virgin.”

A week later—on February 23, 1908—that's just what happened. Fr. Heinrichs usually celebrated Mass at 8:00 a.m., but on that day he had a meeting and so he switched with Fr. Wulstan Workman and celebrated the early (6:00 a.m.) Mass instead. Seated in the third row was an unemployed shoemaker, a recent immigrant by the name of Giuseppe Alia. Alia was a deeply troubled anarchist, and for some reason he had a special hatred for priests.

At Holy Communion, Alia lined up with the other congregants to receive the Eucharist, and he knelt at the Communion rail. He received the consecrated Host, but then spat it out into his hand and flung it at Fr. Heinrich's face. As the Host dropped to the floor, Alia drew his revolver and aimed at the startled priest, shooting him through the heart.

As he fell, before losing consciousness, Fr. Heinrichs prayed, “My Lord and my God.” He attempted to pick up the Hosts which had fallen from the ciborium in his hands, and then died on the step of Our Lady's altar.

Giuseppe Alia was captured by a conductor for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, who happened to be present at the Mass, and was arrested by an off-duty Denver police officer. Later, at the jail, Alia is reported to have explained his actions: “I went over there,” he said,

“...because I have a grudge against all priests in general. They are all against the workingman. I went to the Communion rail because I could get a better shot. I did not care whether he was a German priest or any other kind of priest. They are all in the same class. ... I shot him, and my only regret is that I could not shoot the whole bunch of priests in the Church.”

Alia was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging. He never expressed remorse; his final words, as he was hanged in the Colorado State Penitentiary, were “Death to the priests!”

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From the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops comes this prayer for priests:

Gracious and loving God, we thank you for the gift of our priests.
Through them, we experience your presence in the sacraments.

Help our priests to be strong in their vocation.
Set their souls on fire with love for your people.

Grant them the wisdom, understanding, and strength they need to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
Inspire them with the vision of your Kingdom.

Give them the words they need to spread the Gospel.
Allow them to experience joy in their ministry.

Help them to become instruments of your divine grace.

We ask this through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns as our Eternal Priest.