The Rev. Leon R. Wagner, who served as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Riverside for 17 years before retiring from active ministry in 1992, died March 7, 2019 at the age of 94.
Father Wagner arrived at St. Mary in 1975 after serving as an associate at a number of parishes in the Chicago area, including St. John Brebeuf Parish in Niles, where he served in the mid-1960s while that parish was in the midst of constructing a new church.
Built in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, the design of St. John Brebeuf was unlike pre-Vatican II churches. The church itself is round and constructed of natural stone, with light pouring through a semicircular ribbon of windows at the rear of the church.
Father Thomas May, the present pastor of St. Mary Church and former pastor of St. John Brebeuf, said Fr. Wagner wrote him once, mentioning the pride he took in the Niles church.
“He was very proud of the fact he helped advise the architect of the church,” May said.
When Fr. Wagner came to St. Mary, according to longtime parishioner Jack Wiaduck, it appeared as if the new pastor would be overseeing another church construction project. However, said Wiaduck, Cardinal John Cody nixed the new church. Instead, Wagner oversaw the major interior renovation of the existing church, including repairing the stained glass windows and remodeling areas of the school.
Father Wagner was also pastor at the time a new rectory was built to house him and the parish’s associate priests. The split-level residence across Herrick Road from the church would, after his retirement, also be partially converted into parish offices.
Wiaduck recalled Fr. Wagner as a strong parish leader who was a keen golfer and also enjoyed boating on the Illinois River, often inviting parishioners to join him.
“He was a builder for St. Mary’s,” said Wiaduck, “It was a strong and active parish while he was here.”
Fr. Wagner was born on July 6, 1924, in Evanston. He attended St. Joseph School in Wilmette and Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago. He graduated with a master’s degree and a licentiate of sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein.
After being ordained by Cardinal Samuel Stritch on May 7, 1949, Fr. Wagner served as an associate at several parishes in the Chicago Archdiocese, including St. Anthony Padua in Chicago, St. Joseph in Waukegan, St, Matthias in Chicago, St. John Brebeuf, Divine Infant in Westchester and Queen of All Saints Basilica in Chicago.
He was assigned as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Riverside in 1975 and would stay there until his retirement in 1992
Following his retirement, Wiaduck said, Fr. Wagner retired to Johns Island, South Carolina, where he lived with his sister and continued to assist at a number of parishes. The January 2018 edition of the Seabrooker, a newspaper covering Seabrook Island, South Carolina, carried an advertisement announcing that Fr. Wagner was saying goodbye to the island and Holy Spirit Parish after 15 years of service and moving to the Bishop Timothy J. Lyne Residence for retired priests in Palos Park.
“He found renewed meaning for his vocation” in South Carolina, Wiaduck said.
Funeral services will be held in South Carolina at a later date, according to a press release from the Archdiocese of Chicago.