It was a “tender moment” on Saturday, as Fr. Gregory Leif was greeted by a line of cars filled with members of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Waseca, the day before he delivered his final Mass. Leif is retiring after serving as a priest for 42 years, the last seven being in Waseca.
“I enjoyed it immensely,” Leif said of the afternoon parade thrown in his honor to bid him farewell. “It was like walking down memory lane. I have intensely missed them all since March.”
Due to restrictions revolving around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the last couple months of Leif’s tenure as a priest looked nothing like he could have ever imagined or prepared for. Delivering Masses via video was new to him, but Leif said it was just another opportunity for him to see the true good in people.
“It was a real challenge when all of a sudden I was saying a private Mass and asking, what difference is God making in the midst of all this?” Leif said. “The question had a better answer than I anticipated — I saw that the people have an even deeper hunger for that strength and that peace that God provides.”
Leif said that when COVID-19 first hit, members of his congregations were showing up to pray in church every day, asking that the power of God’s healing bring protection to the world.
“These are people who really pull together and build community,” Leif said. “They truly care about one another, and I’m really proud of the people who have stepped forward.”
This was not the first time that Leif was impressed by the power and unity of the Waseca community. As Leif said in an open letter to his congregation in May, the past seven years have brought several unexpected and difficult events to the small town. Specifically, Leif recalled the incident with John LaDue, the Waseca High student who was arrested in spring 2014 and initially charged with four counts of attempted murder, two of attempted property damage, and six counts of possessing explosives after authorities discovered his large storage locker full of explosives and other bomb-making materials. According to his notes and his confession, LaDue planned to murder his family, start a diversionary fire in a nearby field, set off bombs in the school and shoot as many people as he could before being killed himself by a SWAT team.
“The people [of Sacred Heart] prayed for him and his family and the school every single day from then on,” Leif said.
Leif also mentioned storms that caused damage, the closing of the city’s largest employer and this past winter’s non-fatal shooting of Officer Arik Matson as other points of turmoil that the Waseca community endured, noting that each time the people of his congregation approached the situations with grace.
“When the town prayed on a cool windy evening, the crowd did not speak of their own discomfort,” Leif wrote in his letter of the outpouring of support for Matson immediately following his shooting. “But of their concern for this man, who served them.”
Stepping into retirement, Leif said it will be difficult to leave the people of Sacred Heart, but that he knows they are more than capable of continuing forward without him, regardless of what life might throw their way next.
“I’m absolutely convinced that the Lord will do good things in the next chapter for Waseca and for Sacred Heart,” Leif said. “I take leave with a heart full of gratitude and admiration for having to be able to meet some truly extraordinary people. I know they’ll do well, and I will be the one to miss them.”