Home » Destinations » U.S.A. » Totowa, New Jersey: Holy Sepulchre Cemetery and grave of Father Leo Heinrichs

Totowa, New Jersey: Holy Sepulchre Cemetery and grave of Father Leo Heinrichs

About Father Leo Heinrichs:

(Courtesy Aaron Lambert, Denver Catholic)

Father Leo Heinrichs woke up the morning of Feb. 23, 1908, and prepared for the 6 a.m. Mass at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Denver. While he normally said the 8 a.m. Mass, Father Leo had asked his vicar, Father Wulstan Workman, if he could switch on account of a meeting he had later that morning.

It was the last Mass the Franciscan priest ever celebrated. While distributing Holy Communion, an Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Alia approached the altar rail, and knelt down to receive the Host given him by Father Leo. However, upon receiving it, Alia spit the Host out into his hand and threw it in the face of Father Leo. As the Host fell to the ground, Alia pulled a revolver hidden in his pocket and put a bullet in Father Leo’s heart.

The front page of the February 27, 1908 edition of the Denver Catholic Register described Father Leo’s final moments: “Father Leo reeled and sank to the floor of the sanctuary, striving with the instinct of the priest to collect the consecrated particles which had been scattered from the chalice. Father Wulstan, being called, was just In time to administer the last sacraments when he expired, his last act being to point mutely to the fallen contents of the ciborium.”

With his dying breaths, Father Leo recovered two fallen hosts which he placed in the ciborium he held; he then placed the ciborium on the step of the Virgin Mary’s altar which lay a few feet away. Just a week prior, Father Leo had told members of the Marian society Sodality of Our Lady, “If I had my choice of a place where I would die, I would choose to die at the feet of the Blessed Virgin.” An eyewitness to the murder said that indeed, Father Leo died at the foot of the Blessed Virgin’s altar, with a peaceful smile spread about his face.

Father Leo’s love of the Virgin Mary was second only to his love of the Eucharist, as exemplified by his dying acts. On Nov. 9, 1916, the Denver Catholic Register, reprinting an article from The Catholic Columbian, wrote of Father Leo’s Eucharistic devotion: “How he loved the Blessed Sacrament! Although he was dying from the moment the bullet, sharpened by the brutal murderer for its deadly work, pierced his heart, his whole concern was to save from desecration the consecrated species scattered on the ground around him. Curiosity to know why he had an enemy, the roar of rage coming from a congregation frenzied at the crime — not these things turned him from solicitude for the dignity of the great Sacrament he had in his keeping.”

Alia, Father Leo’s assassin, confessed that he was an anarchist.  Editors note:  We cannot find any evidence that he was an anarchist or member of any particular group…..it seems he was simply a confused, mentally ill human being.  It is of note that at this point of time in the U.S., the labor movement and some anarchist groups were on the rise, so it was easy to blame this killing on the anarchists.

He had planned to kill several other priests that day, and he showed no remorse for his actions. Despite a request for leniency on behalf of the Colorado Franciscan friars, Alia was tried and sentenced to death by hanging – a show of justice in those days. Reportedly, Alia’s last words were, “Death to the priests!”

Father Wulstan, in reflecting on how his life was spared due to an innocent switch with Father Leo between Masses, later told the Denver Post, “I would have been killed and he would be alive now. There is one way to solve the affair that I can see, and that is that God chose the better man.”

Father Leo was informally declared a martyr in the days that followed. His funeral Mass was attended by thousands of people, including the Colorado governor.

His body was brought back to New Jersey, and initially buried in the friars’ cemetery at St. Bonaventure’s in Paterson, where he had begun his priesthood. Exhumed in November 1911, his body was re-interred at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Totowa.   His body was found to be remarkably incorrupt, despite the complete deterioration of the casket and shroud.

With the attribution of miracles to his intercession, and the endorsement of the bishops of Denver, Newark, and New York City, the Cardinal of Cologne, Germany, and the Postulator General of the Franciscan Order in Rome, the case for Father Heinrich’s elevation to sainthood was officially begun by the Vatican in 1933.


Finding the grave of Father Leo Heinrichs in Paterson, New Jersey:

His grave is near that of another heroic Francisan, Father Mychal Judge, officially listed as the first victim of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

Father Leo’s grave is visited by pilgrims from all over the U.S.

Holy Sepulchre Cemetery is located at 52 Totowa Road, Totowa, NJ 07512 and the grave of Father Leo Heinrichs is at the southwest corner of Section 5, Franciscan plot in center of cemetery.

⇐ Back to Catholic places of interest in the U.S.A.