Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 14, 2001
Gartner's gift of priesthood
Mild-mannered priest happy to be back at the basilica
By LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WCR Staff Writer
The gentle-mannered priest pauses to frame a child's smiling face with his hands at the end of Christmas Eve Mass. A watching older parishioner turns to his companion saying; "What a wonderful man. He's been gone 30 years. It's good to have him home."
The priest is Father Leonard Gartner.
And "home" is St. Joseph's Basilica in Edmonton. Gartner took over the role of rector at the basilica in July. The last time he served at St. Joseph's - then designated a cathedral - was in the mid-1960s when he was just one year fresh out of the seminary.
When he was asked to return to St. Joseph's, Gartner remembers feeling "nervous, afraid perhaps of not being able to provide the needed leadership of such a large parish. You worry about that. But I was excited to be coming home. . . . I was honoured and pleased they would consider my gift back here again."
Let Gartner explain what he means when he calls the priesthood a "gift." "Even today, I am sometimes surprised by all these people who hunger for God, and the priest who is that agent. The priest is the one who is called to minister. So it is an awesome thing, a wonderful, wonderful gift."
Even as a young boy, Leonard Gartner knew that he wanted that "gift." Born in the Saskatchewan hamlet of Cosine, Leonard was the second youngest child in a family of eight. His parents, Adolph and Anna, were of Germanic descent and had been exiled from Russia to Canada as children. Times were hard - drought, depression.
Yet Gartner remembers "a family that loved the Church, certainly loved God. Christ was present in life and celebration. The family had a tremendous respect for the Church, the priests and the priesthood. His family lived its prayer, which allows their son to now say, "My vocation was born within the family."
The Gartners moved to Alberta from Saskatchewan when Leonard was seven and he went to school in Daysland.
Even now, he easily recalls a moment when his Grade 5 teacher, killing time at the end of the day, asked his students what they wanted to be. Some wanted to be cowboys, others said doctors. But when young Leonard stood up, he heard himself telling the class, "I want to be a priest."
Garner still smiles at the memory. "I am not sure where that came from. I surprised myself that day. And the others all giggled."
But the young boy's quiet knowing was affirmed just a few years later.
Leonard's beloved mother Anna was dying. She had a brain tumour. She was hospitalized, waiting for her operation and her children all went to see their mother. When it was 13-year-old Leonard's turn to visit her, he told his mother his precious secret - he wanted to be a priest. "She was much at peace and very happy with that," remembers Gartner.
Anna Gartner died Christmas Eve 1949.
The dying mother must have shared her boy's confidence with her husband though because a few years later, "my father asked me if I wanted to go to a Catholic college."
So Leonard studied with the Franciscan Fathers in Edmonton for Grades 11 and 12, followed by six years at St. Joseph's Seminary.
Gartner was ordained in 1961 at the age of 25. And it was then that Gartner changed his name from Leonard to Len. "I don't know why I did that - maybe because it seems simpler."
His ministry moved from Trochu, to St. Joseph's Cathedral, St. Pius X, Evansburg, Lacombe, St. Clare, Sherwood Park, Camrose and missions, Good Shepherd and back to St. Joseph's
Looking back to his first years as a priest, Gartner muses, "I must have been very insecure and nervous, anxious and excited. And yet I was intrigued with the wonder of what I was called to do - as one who was called to preside at the Eucharist. Older people attending all of a sudden had a priest who was a kid. And it intrigued me how much the people loved the priesthood. They look to the priest for Eucharist, reconciliation, wisdom, guidance, for teaching. And that has always been with me."
Forty years is a long time for one to practise any profession, especially the priesthood. Gartner describes it as a journey that has been one of growth in every way - "spiritually and I certainly have grown up as a man."
Asked how has he grown as a shepherd, the priest pauses before answering.
"I'm trying to understand everyone's needs. . . . Not every person comes neatly packaged. People come from brokenness, . . . diverse backgrounds and they come to the same meeting place on Sunday."
He continues, explaining how his life allows him to relate to many of his parishioners' pain. "My mother who died so young has taught me an empathy for people who have lost whatever they have lost whether in death, separation, divorce, or a child who has lost their parent because I grew up with that pain, that loss myself. In that sense I think I am able to empathize with others."
His work means Gartner's calendar is full. Yet there are pockets of time when he relaxes and listens to classical piano, Celine Dion and "occasionally, very occasionally, I love some country rock."
This priest's reading turns to the theologically thoughtful - Thomas Moore, Henri Nouwen, Ron Rolheiser. Then there is "a bit of a cottage where I can escape to. I think a lot there, problem solve, think about people, situations, my own life. There is a thing that clears and I give sober second thoughts to a lot of the issues that I have to deal with."
And for just straight-out fun, he makes his way to farm auctions and perhaps picks up an antique radio or gramophone to add to his collection.
Reflecting back to the witnessed Christmas Eve scenario at the beginning of the story, Gartner is asked about the welcoming ambiance he brings to his ministry. He replies, "The priesthood is a wonderful gift. It is a hard vocation to live, but it is a wonderful gift.
"But every life is hard. I love what I do. It is a gift of peace. The comfort comes from knowing being a priest is what God wants me to do at this moment. It is living the now. There is a wonderful grace in living the gift."