Obituary: The Rev. Leo G. Henry / Activist, Catholic priest put his community first

Jan. 11, 1926 - Dec. 26, 2013

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The Rev. Leo G. "Bud" Henry, an activist Catholic priest who joined the clergy after serving in the U.S. Navy and showcased his community-organizing prowess by launching the enduring Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. in the 1970s, died after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 87.

Father Henry died Dec. 26 at Vincentian Home in McCandless. He was buried Thursday at New St. Joseph Cemetery in North Versailles after a Mass at Corpus Christi Church in McKeesport, where he led his last congregation, the former St. Pius V Parish, until 1996.

In addition to his community-organizing work, Father Henry was active in diocesan education, overseeing the construction of two schools -- Bishop Canevin High School in the South Hills and the now-closed St. Thomas High School in Braddock -- and serving as headmaster of both.

He also spearheaded the production of a four-volume series of high school religion texts that were sold to Catholic high schools across the country with assistance from one of his brothers, Philip, who was a textbook salesman for publisher Harcourt Brace.

Father Henry showed his activist flair with his foray into writing textbooks.

Thus "Roots of Faith" was created. Father Henry had identified a problem and solved it, much the same way he saw neglect and blight in the Bloomfield-Garfield neighborhood when he was sent to St. Lawrence O'Toole Parish in June 1969 and then did something about it.

"He was a visionary. He was before his time. And he was a true apostle. He did not sit in the rectory. He was out and about in the neighborhood. He wanted to know what the needs of the people were, and he wanted to address them," said Aggie Brose, Bloomfield-Garfield's deputy director.

"Everybody should be allowed to live in pride and dignity," Ms. Brose said of Father Henry's credo. "That's what he was about. He just wanted people to be held accountable."

With Ms. Brose at his side, Father Henry launched Bloomfield-Garfield in 1975.

One of his targets for accountability in that era was former Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri. Father Henry called out the mayor publicly in 1978 in the midst of efforts by Bloomfield-Garfield to have a bank open a branch in the neglected area.

"Caliguiri Denounced by Garfield Priest," read the headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Taking the pulpit of the former St. Lawrence O'Toole Church in Garfield, Father Henry called Mr. Caliguiri "Tricky Dicky" and chastised him for allegedly reneging on a commitment to deposit $3 million in city funds as an inducement for a bank to locate there.

"He lied to council, and he lied to us, and he is not going to get away with it," Father Henry told parishioners.

The mayor was contrite, explaining he would honor the commitment but was constrained by banking laws for him to sign a pledge card promising the money.

Neither Ms. Brose nor others active in politics at the time recall what exactly happened to the promise for city funds, but either way, Father Henry and his efforts were eventually rewarded by the opening of a bank.

It was Father Henry's type of ministry -- sleeves rolled up and done with an in-your-face yet peaceable approach.

"Leo 'Bud' Henry was one of the most people-oriented priests I ever knew. I was a young lawyer working for the Diocese of Pittsburgh when Bud drafted me to incorporate the Bloomfield Garfield Association, a community based nonprofit that went on to revitalize the Bloomfield Garfield corridor, and is still doing great good today," said Duquesne University School of Law professor Nicholas Cafardi.

"Bud was a true visionary in that sense. He was also a Pope Francis for Garfield before there was a Pope Francis. He was truly a shepherd who smelled of his sheep. He knew his people, he loved them, and he gave his best for them. I wish that we had more priests like Bud Henry."

Father Henry learned his tactics at the feet of Saul Alinsky, the renowned community organizer from Chicago and author of "Rules for Radicals," said Sister Joel Campbell, Father Henry's longtime pastoral associate at St. Pius V.

He put those lessons into practice in both Garfield and McKeesport, where he started the now-defunct McKeesport Pride organization.

"He used what he had to bring about change," Sister Joel said. That included tapping retirees and herding them into buses for various types of protest actions. Some of those willing participants included Sister Joel's parents, who were from the Bloomfield-Garfield area.

"They were some of the people riding on the buses. They loved it," Sister Joel said. "It brought a lot of excitement into their lives."

Father Henry was the second child born to a devout family in the Morningside section of Pittsburgh. The son of a life insurance salesman and a homemaker, he had two brothers and a sister.

Philip Henry, 77, of Pine remembers an older brother who bought him a sled one year for Christmas, once gave advice in his youth to punch someone who was bothering him, and was a bit of a "ladies' man."

Indeed, before the seminary there was a whole world of secular life for Father Henry -- dating, the military, college. And Philip Henry thinks that background was one of his brother's great strengths in becoming an activist. "He could relate with people and nothing anybody said shocked him," he said.

In 1977 Father Henry told the Post-Gazette, "I looked around at other successful guys leading dissolute lives at 35, and I sensed I was going in the same direction."

Father Henry went to seminary, was ordained in 1955 and worked until 1996.

"You had to give the people power to take care of business, and that's what he did. He brought the people together, he brought in organizers and brought in training," Ms. Brose said. "Father started something that's going to grow for years, I'm sure."

William H. Craig Funeral Home handled arrangements. Donations can be made to the Vincentian Home nursing staff, 111 Perrymont Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15237.

Jonathan D. Silver: or 412-263-1962.

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