During World War II, the Elmwood Park area was designated as a defense industrial zone. The population quickly grew due to the arrival of large numbers of workers. After the war, many stayed on in the town and the chapel could not accommodate the increased population. Funds were raised and in 1949 the present church building was erected.
When the baby boomer generation began attending school, it quickly became apparent that the existing school facilities were inadequate. Once again funds were raised and in 1959 a new school was built.
Today, the Franciscans have left. However, almost 100 years later, there is still an excellent school and a vibrant, growing parish. Under an energetic stewardship program there are many ministries such as Social Concerns, Holy Name Society, youth group, choir, Spanish Ministry, and Rosary Society, with many other ministries continuing to be added.
St. Leo Parish underwent structural changes two years ago when the Franciscan Friars left the parish and an archdiocesan priest-Father Joseph A. D'Amico-was installed as pastor.
"The Franciscan Friars of the Holy Name province established the community here almost 100 years ago. The archdiocesan personnel board, along with the provincial administration, sought to have a transition period where I would live with the friars and serve the people of St. Leo's for three months before their departure," Father D'Amico explained.
After growing accustomed to the parish while living with the Franciscans, Father D'Amico felt confident that he could provide spiritual guidance to his new parish family. "It was a great way to meet the parish and also make friends of the friars who had the responsibility of handing over the parish to the archdiocese," he said. "I immediately felt warmly accepted and embraced by the parish family."
Parish registration has grown in the past few years and stewardship has increased with the help of the archdiocese. There are 1,617 registered families with Italian, Spanish, Polish and Filipino heritage-a mixture of long-time and new parishioners. The parish's diversity and communal sprit is a source of pride for Father D'Amico.
"St. Leo's is a faith-filled, warm, embracing and accepting community. My first impression of the parish was how enjoyable and fun Sunday worship is. We have many happy, joyful and upbeat people who enjoy coming and celebrating the Eucharist with us every Sunday. They continue to inspire and sustain me by their prayers, faithful worship and friendship. I am blessed to be able to share life and ministry with them," Father D'Amico explained.
St. Leo's School continues the spirit of stewardship with 339 students in grades K-8 along with 25 Pre-K students. Approximately 74 percent of students are parishioners at the Middle-States accredited school. St. Leo's School excels at basketball with both boys' and girls' teams winning tournaments.
Religious education is also valuable to the parish community. Under the guidance of William Schulenburg, pastoral associate and director of religious education, and 12 catechists, 175 students focus on faith development while adhering to a foundation of basic doctrine.
As co-chairs of the Social Concerns committee at St. Leo Parish, Carol Cole and her husband Jerry have seen the generosity and Christian spirit of the community first-hand. "We are a warm, caring and united parish. Everyone here wants to do things and get involved," Carol Cole said.
After the much-loved Franciscan Friars left, Cole saw a difference in parish activity. "The parish has completely changed since Father D'Amico became pastor. I think because we have some new blood in the parish, the community became more active."
Cole often cooks for people at a soup kitchen or creates baskets for the less fortunate. Even people outside of the St. Leo Parish community are witness to their good deeds. "I always go to Costco to be more economical when preparing food for baskets. One of the men who works at the front door asked me ‘What are you doing today?' He said we always have something going on and that we have great programs. We are doing more stewardship and it shows."
Cole and her husband joined in renewing their vows a few weeks ago at the parish. These activities foster communal bonding and engage older and newer parishioners alike. "About 50 couples renewed their vows. Everyone had a wonderful time. The parish is much closer now and we are getting more young people in the parish. Older people are pillars of the Church, but a younger generation is now helping more with stewardship."
Cole and the 35-40 members of the parish's Social Concerns committee deliver food baskets at holiday times, such as Easter, to surrounding areas such as Saddle Brook, Garfield and Lodi. Parishioners jump at the chance to aid Cole in gathering essential items for her food pantry.
"The pantry could be down to its bare walls and like magic, the food just arrives. It is really overwhelming that people keep contributing. It is a nice little community. It seems like everyone is working for the betterment of the souls of people and for the Church. We do the work that a church is supposed to do."
As president of the pastoral council, John Duffy has been a parishioner at St. Leo Parish for 10 years. Duffy "runs the gamut" of parish activities and is the chair of the children's liturgy committee, participates in the choir and is a eucharistic minister. "Being at St. Leo's is a tremendous experience," he said. "I love the sense of community and new parishioners join all of the time."
Like Cole, Duffy has seen a change in the parish since Father D'Amico took over, even though the parishioners felt a close bond with the Franciscans.
"The was an outdoor Mass as an official send-off for the friars two years ago. There was a large attendance and an outpouring of support from the community. Father D'Amico kept the Franciscan spirit alive and the parish didn't lose that. There was no spiritual difference when Father Joe came," Duffy noted.
St. Leo Parish did take advantage of the new resources the archdiocese had to offer." When Father Joe came, the floods gate opened to stewardship and collections improved." Once every six to eight weeks, the parish has New Parishioner Sunday where new members are introduced to ministries of the parish and other community activities.
All of the outreach and stewardship strengthens Duffy and the current parishioners' love for their place of worship. "I could brag all day about St. Leo Parish. When I walk onto that complex, I just feel at peace. I feel at home."
(St. Leo Parish is located at 324 Market St., Elmwood Park. The parish Web site is: www.stleosep.net.)