Saving A Church Without A Parish

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The recently-restored sanctuary of Saint Leo's Catholic Church on Columbus' South side.(Photo: Save Saint Leo's)
The recently-restored sanctuary of Saint Leo's Catholic Church on Columbus' South side.(Photo: Save Saint Leo's)

Saint Leo Catholic Church on Columbus’ South Side was closed by the diocese in 1999.

But former parish members have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars restoring and maintaining the church which was built in 1903.

Saint Leo’s might be a church without a parish but it’s still used on occasion. There are weddings and funerals here…and Korean Catholics hold Mass here on the weekends. And during this Lenten season, the church draws small gatherings on Thursday afternoons to observe The Stations of the Cross.

On this day, there are fewer than 25 people in the sanctuary for the stations liturgy. But at the peak of attendance hundreds of families were Saint Leo’s members. As the population shifted to the suburbs fewer and fewer people called the church home. Finally St. Leo’s fate was sealed.

“In 1999 St. Leo’s was scheduled not only to close but to be torn down,” says Father Kevin Francis Lutz.

The news sent shock waves through the congregation. Lori Mitchell, her parents and grandparents all were Saint Leo’s members.

“It was very upsetting of course, I mean it was a uh we were a tight-knit group and we loved our parish and we loved each other and so it was very difficult for people.”

Mike Wolf’s connections also go back generations.

“I was baptized here in 1944 my children were baptized here, they went to school here, there’s history here,” says Wolf. “There’s a love for the place that you just don’t tear up and throw away and destroy; you try to preserve it as much as you possibly can.”

So a group of former church members created the Saint Leo’s Preservation Society. The group has spent several hundred thousand dollars restoring and embellishing the building…especially its interior.

“The church has been repainted,” says Father Lutz. “Everything you look at in here has been meticulously cleaned, sanded, polished, renewed and brought to original if not better than original quality. If you could see the church when it was first built this splendor might even outdo it.

The latest, most time-consuming and most expensive project was completed only recently. The church’s 87-year-old organ was painstakingly restored.

Mike Wolf, whose unofficial title is property manager at Saint Leo’s, has contributed thousands of his own man-hours, even meticulously repainting the ceiling from a ladder perched atop scaffolding. The preservation society’s Lori Mitchell calls him “Our own Michelangelo.”

But Wolf says his contributions are worth it.

“This is such a beautiful place. To let it go would be, in my opinion, a sin.”

There’s another reason for preserving Saint Leo’s.

“It was painful when it was closed and we hope that someday it will reopen again,” says former member Jean Kingery.

“God willing,” says her husband Wes.

That’s a belief that’s firmly shared by the leadership of the preservation society. President Lori Mitchell.

“We believe that because the way things have happened, almost miraculously, that God does have a plan. I mean we’ve never doubted that. That is deep in our souls; that God has a plan for this church. And He may not be ready for that plan because He still has work for us to do here. But when that time comes, it will be beautiful…whatever it is.”