By Liz Sullivan
Saint Leo the Great Parish in San Jose celebrates one hundred years of faith and education and is still going strong! On August 8, 1915, the first Mass at Saint Leo the Great Mission Church was celebrated. A month later, on September 8, the first school
Mass was celebrated and thus began a century of service to the community.
Saint Leo’s kicked off a year of celebrations on Sunday August 9, 2015 commemorating the 100th anniversary of its founding. “History is a great opportunity for everyone to learn,” said Father Marcelo Navarro, IVE, pastor. “We have been given 100 years of blessings to experience God’s graces.”
Father Navarro has been pastor at Saint Leo since 2006 and is one of 15 pastors to lead the congregation. The first pastor was Father John J. Hayes from 1915-1916. In fact, reflecting the times in the Catholic Church, all of the pastors were of Irish or English descent until then Father Richard J. Garcia became pastor in 1995. Bishop Garcia is now the Bishop of Monterey.
“Cultural diversity is a great part of this community,” said Father Navarro. “It is something we are very proud of.”
The church community is very excited about its anniversary and has formed a Centennial Committee to ensure the celebration is a success. On November 14, Diocese of San Jose Bishop Patrick J. McGrath will help the community celebrate with a Mass on the feast day of Saint Leo the Great. Celebrations will cap off in May with a Night Under the Stars cocktail party. To commemorate the Centennial year, Saint Leo’s has also launched a Stained Glass Window Campaign to repair all of the 38 stained glass windows in the church. “A costly endeavor but a necessary one after 50-60 years when they were first placed”, said Father Navarro.
“I love the whole atmosphere,” said Terry Maes, a member of the Centennial Celebration Committee, and a parishioner since 1996. “It is the most beautiful church in the whole (Santa Clara) valley.”
Saint Leo’s has some neat connections to the community. Initially, Saint Leo’s Mission Chapel was built to handle Mass overflow at O’Connor hospital. At the time, O’Connor was located down Race Street, where the church is now located. Now the location is home to a Safeway supermarket.
As with many parishes, the Saint Leo the Great School has a broad and unique history. The Sisters of Notre Dame ran the school for 10 years until the order of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) took over and ran the school until 1985. Now it is led by lay ministers. “I remember when the nuns would unexpectedly “spot check” the children when they came in from lunch to make sure they had washed their hands and also were not biting their nails. Sister Mary Jameselle was very strict about that!” said Katherine Anne Means, 1953 Graduate of Saint Leo the Great school.
The parish community has also seen its share of visits by famous people. In the early 1940’s, when fundraising began for the church and school you see today, a Hollywood entertainment showcase featuring comedians Red Skelton, Bob Hope and Donald O’Connor took place to raise money. With the help of Father Joseph Manning, pastor at the time, these celebrities donated their time and talents. The church also raffled off a home at the corner of Park & Shasta for $10 a ticket. The gentleman who lives there now is a former school vice principal. “We are uncovering all kinds of interesting facts as we continue to archive our first one hundred years” said Jacqueline Price, co-chair of the Centennial Committee.
The Centennial Celebration Committee is looking for anyone ever affiliated with the church or the school to be in touch to share their special memories and pictures. The group is creating a book full of memories, stories and photos of the life of Saint Leo the Great Parish and School from 1915 to the present.
To learn more about the festivities planned for Saint Leo the Great and its 100th anniversary, or to contact the committee with your stories and pictures, visit: www.saintleothegreatchurch.com.