The LIFE of a dying priest

by Matthew Kurtz
November 1, 2013



Fr. Albert Leary has lived a vibrant life…and spent considerable time reflecting on it. Just consider his mantras:
 
“I always say I was an only child with the exception of 12 others.” Or this one: “I always say I was born in Boston with one foot in the ocean.”
 
Fr. Leary is now nearing age 87. He’s been a priest in the Diocese of Bismarck for 60 years. And he is dying of cancer.
 
I was just a few months into my employment with the diocese when an email from Fr. Leary popped into my inbox last September. The subject line read “email to our diocesan family.”
 
My heart did a flip as I read through the message from a man I hardly knew: “I have been dealing with several types of cancer for more than 20 years,” he said. “…The scan was done at St. Alexius Hospital…the cancer had indeed metastasized to the bone…I asked him about the time I had left, and he indicated it might be from 12 to 18 months.”
 
I soon found myself at apartment #8 at Emmaus Place, the retired priests’ residence for the Bismarck Diocese. Usually young children are the most difficult to interview on camera—they’re so fidgety, it’s hard to keep them in frame. But as we visited, Fr. Al proved to be just as hard to keep in my camera frame. Not because of any uneasiness, but his positive energy and large hand gestures kept me on my toes. I soon learned that Fr. Al’s outlook on his impending death wasn’t one of gloom, but of joy and confidence.
 
The first interview
Fr. Leary told me all about his life: How he was born in Boston to a very large, faithful family. How he loves cruise trips. How he spearheaded the construction of the Church of St. Joseph in Williston after a fire destroyed the building in 1980. How he spent 20 years as pastor of the Church of Christ the King in Mandan.
 
He knew nothing of the west, yet took a leap of faith, boarded a non-pressurized DC-3 aircraft, and came to N.D. after being ordained a priest in 1954. He wanted to “serve in a place where you really felt needed” and was attracted by the prospect of becoming a pastor early in his priesthood in North Dakota (since it typically took at least 30 years to become a pastor in the Archdiocese of Boston).
 
Fr. Al knows suffering: His father was killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver and his mother died of a sudden heart attack. Despite his distance from them, he was coincidentally able to speak with each of his parents hours before they died.
 
“I saw the finger of God in that,” he said. “The only thing I can say to people: If you want to hang in there through the thick and thin of all that life has to offer—don’t leave Christ out.”
 
He always put his parishioners first. A number of his vacations abruptly ended if there was a funeral to celebrate back home. “I loved the people, and I hope they loved me. Was I a saint without blemish? No! I had my Irish temper. But I always tried to make sure that when I made a mistake, I expressed my sorrow for it.”
 
He was first diagnosed with cancer in 1990 during a routine annual physical. He’s endured surgery to remove his prostate as well as chemotherapy and 36 radiation treatments.
 
“I missed one shot and it got ahead of me.” Now, he has just months left to live. His response?
 
“Thank you, Lord, for keeping me alive so long when I could have been gone years ago. Thank you for giving me the time to get ready. This is what I’ve been working for all my life. I’m hopeful that I’ll be well prepared when the time comes.
 
“I’ve been praying a lot. I don’t want to come up there [to heaven] and say [to God], ‘What’s your name again?’ I want the Lord to say, ‘Come in, Al!’”
 
What does a dying priest pray for?
 
“I pray that I’ll be prepared, that I won’t lose sight of the goal and won’t get distracted. That I’ll have courage. I hope that I have a happy death…and that I leave anybody who mourns me at peace, knowing that I went to God with the hope that, in His mercy, I would receive a judgment that would welcome me into his presence.”
 
New citizenship
Nearly a year had passed since my last interview with Fr. Leary. I had seen him at a number of diocesan events over those months, and naturally wondered how he was doing. He had visibly weakened, and seeing his decline tied my heart in knots.
 
I don’t know if it was my fear of his death or the poor excuse that I was too busy, but I ignored the urge to call him and ask if I could bring my camera to Emmaus Place and visit with him again.
 
Then my phone rang. Fr. Leary wanted me to know that a generous couple had donated two trees to be planted on the grounds of Emmaus Place in his honor. I knew the Holy Spirit had made up for my weakness.
 
I returned to apartment #8, and once we began visiting, my fears soon melted. How had I forgotten his positive outlook? Sure, his energy had declined, but his heart still radiated with peace.
 
“As a priest, this is what you’ve trained for, worked for…I want to witness to the depth of my own personal faith and the promises of Jesus Christ to me. As a priest, I need to be an example of accepting God’s will.”
 
He told me of an experience years ago at a hospital in Minot. A dying man called for him on his way out the door. Fr. Leary went to his bedside. Despite the influence of heavy medication, the man told him that he’s “going to give up his citizenship papers in the United States.” There was a pause. Both men were weeping. “I’m taking out my citizenship papers in the kingdom of heaven,” the man said.
 
“I had never heard anybody express what it means to die as a Catholic so beautifully. You’re going home to God.”
 
Fr. Leary has prepared his funeral, and he intends for it to be a celebration. He gave me strict orders to come to his funeral and to “sing loud!” He’s known to tell funeral organists to “let loose on that organ and I want the roof off this place!”
 
We continued to visit and then he pulled out a sheet of paper. Something he wrote a few months ago. A letter to go out to family and friends after his death. “It kind of sums up what I’m trying to do and be these final days.” He wants people to know when he has died. And to pray for him after his death.
 
“Dear brothers and sisters, thank you for all your kindnesses to me,” the letter concludes. “It was always my hope that as death approached and consciousness began to fade, my last thoughts would be of my blessed and merciful savior, Jesus Christ, and that the last word I would utter on Earth would be the most holy name of Jesus.”
 
Thank you, Fr. Leary, for your example of holiness and trust in the will of God. We will be praying for you. Please never stop praying for us.


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