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Parish History

Founders pic cropped and enhanced

The Church of St. Leonard of Port Maurice was incorporated into the archdiocese on January 10th, 1940 and was established to serve the African-American Catholics of Minneapolis. Fr. Leonard Hirman was asked to be the first pastor and he built the present church. St. Leonard was dedicated by Archbishop John Gregory Murray on June 15th, 1941. During the following period the parish was also served by the Oblate Sisters of the Providence of Baltimore. The sisters dedicated themselves as teachers and catechists.

In 1964, St. Leonard’s became a mission church of Incarnation Parish in Minneapolis. In 1973, St. Leonard’s regained parish status.

There have been two major renovation projects over the years. One involved remodeling the kitchen and sanctuary, and the other added a gathering space, more pews and handicapped accessibility.
St. Leonard’s is a small parish and has depended upon the involvement of its community to maintain its programs and existence. The parish provides catechetical training, Eucharistic ministers and funeral ministry. It is a community of prayer, worship, support and friendship.

The community is small but is known for its friendliness, singing and all-inclusive acceptance of members and visitors. The parishioners come from a variety of ages, occupations, racial and ethnic backgrounds, live throughout the Twin Cities and come together to worship. Our faith is reflected in our prayer, service and fellowship.

The Church of St Leonard of Port Maurice…The Beginning

This memoir was written by Delmar Napue, a founding member of the Church of St. Leonard of Port Maurice and a longtime greeter for the parish:

I am Delmar Napue, a parishioner here. They decided I was the one to give the history I know, because I was the one who was here from Day One. In fact, I was here before St. Leonard Church was!

Sometime in early 1991, just before the church was getting ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary I had a sit-down talk with Father Hirman. We had a great time reminiscing for a while and I asked him why he didn’t bring up some of the history of the church. And in response he said: “Don’t never, ever tell the people all the history of the church, they don’t need to know anything, everything about it. It wouldn’t do any good to bring it up now.”

When I gave this statement to the people who encouraged me to do this history, they said you ought to bring up everything if it is good or bad. Well, I had to think about it.

To begin the history you have to turn the clock back quite a few years back to the late 1930s. At that time, in too many churches they didn’t welcome the blacks. Oh you could go there, but you were not really welcomed there. Now I know this is going to be hard to believe but I have experienced it firsthand. I went to school at the Basilica of St. Mary, next to the Basilica downtown Minneapolis at 17th and Hennepin. And that is one of the biggest churches I know of in the Saint Paul and Minneapolis area.

There were about four or five of us young black boys, and a few girls going there at the time. We boys wanted to become altar boys. We were told to go to our own church if we wanted to be altar boys — you couldn’t become altar boys at the Basilica. Now that may have been the first case of discrimination against me but I really didn’t understand it, being so young and dumb. But there was no predominately black church for us to go to. Well, along came Father Hirman.
I don’t know if he was asked or told by Archbishop Murray, but he set out to start a church where black people would feel more at home. There was no black church so we had to make some other arrangement. No other church in Minneapolis, to my knowledge of the history, would let us use their church after they were through with their services, as St. Leonard did for several years with the Hmong community.

So we rented some space at the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House. It was within a Hebrew school, Talmud Farah School in north Minneapolis. It was built in 1929.

The Phyllis Wheatley House was used by many of the different communities in north Minneapolis. These were the days of “restricted” hotel facilities meaning Jews and Blacks were only allowed in certain hotels. Phyllis Wheatley was available to everyone, no matter what your race or creed. Many famous and influential entertainers and minority leaders stayed at Phyllis Wheatley. We should never forget Minneapolis was once a leading anti-Semitic metropolis.
It was in the new house that we used their assembly area for Sunday Mass. At that time you couldn’t just walk into church and go to Mass. Some of us older fellows and younger teenagers had to get there quite early, like an hour in advance, and set up the plywood altar. We had to get it together and the ladies were there and they had to get the linens and everything that went along with it. We also had to set up folding chairs so the people had a place to sit down. Then we had the Mass and after that we had to reverse the process making sure everything was put away.

Now in talking about St. Leonard Church, I must bring up the name of St. Martin Church, for the simple reason that had it not been for St. Martin Church there would have never been a St. Leonard Church. St. Martin Church was built first. It stood on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Bryant Avenue in north Minneapolis.

Being an altar boy at that time was much different than being what they call “altar server” today, for the simple reason we had to learn Latin, since the Mass was said in Latin. And this is where Father Hirman came in again; he wasn’t just a pastor, he, was a teacher, a counselor and sometimes a chauffeur because he had to pick us kids up to get us there. We used some of the; parishioners’ private homes in order to get the schooling needed to learn Latin
And then there was a High Mass. I presume a lot of the younger generation don’t even know what a High Mass is. We had to practice for a High Mass. We usually had to come in early Saturday evening and practice for it. And, also, the choir had to practice with us because everything was in song (meaning that the replies were sung). The parishioners depended on the priest, choir and servers to know what they were doing so the responses were right, and the Mass was a proper celebration. But eventually we learned our Latin and we learned everything that went along with it.
I don’t remember when the first Mass took place at St. Martin Church, but it was a day to remember. Everyone was there including the archbishop of the diocese, Archbishop John Gregory Murray.

Now everything went along well for awhile, but then a challenge arose. A lot of the people lived in south Minneapolis and getting to north Minneapolis on Sunday was a problem because the transportation was not the best. So the need came up for another parish in south Minneapolis. Now that is where St. Leonard Church comes in!

There was no settlement house in the vicinity so they bought a house, which still stands. It is located at 3615 Fourth Avenue South. That is where the first Mass for the Church of St. Leonard of Port Maurice was celebrated.
But eventually the church was built. When St. Leonard was dedicated, everybody was there from north and south Minneapolis. The dedication took place on Sunday, June 15, 1941, with Archbishop Murray present.

We had a habit of going between the two churches. Father Hirman was the pastor of both parishes. Also, in 1941, in early December, war broke out and the United States went to war with Japan and Germany. Everything was rationed: certain foods, leather, and definitely gasoline. There was no more joy riding and that made the situation even tougher to get around between churches.

Eventually, the war ended and somewhere along the line, St. Leonard and St. Martin were something like Siamese twins, and they had to be separated in order for one to survive. Replacing Father Hirman at St. Martin was another young priest, more or less like Father Hirman named Father Francis J. Burns. He continued at St. Martin.
In time I moved quite a ways from both parishes and it was almost impossible for me to get there so I had to go to a different parish in the neighborhood where I lived. It wasn’t long before they started up what they called a “police action” over Korea. And I found it was my turn to go into service. I was gone for about seven years and upon my return I lived so far north in Brooklyn Center, it became even tougher for me to get around.

Eventually, I moved back to south Minneapolis and I wondered if the church on 40th and Clinton was still there. I had gone by St. Martin and the building was still there but it had been sold to a Lutheran congregation. When I went over to 40th and Clinton, to my surprise, St. Leonard was still sitting there. And the first Sunday I made it my business to go over there, I met the new pastor of the church. After the service he said, “Welcome to St. Leonard, I’m John Kinney.” I said, “You got those words backwards, I should be welcoming you to St. Leonard, and you should be welcoming me back to St. Leonard!” After I told him what I meant by that statement, we had a good laugh about it. It was then I learned how things became so bad at St. Leonard that St. Leonard had become a mission church of Incarnation Parish.

Who was St. Leonard of Port Maurice?

St. Leonard of Port Maurice was born December 20, 1676 at Porto Maurizio on the Riviera di Ponente, the Northwest coast of Italy near the French border. He was the son of Domenico Casanova and Anna Marie Benza. He studied with the Jesuits in Rome (Collegio Romano) and then joined the Riformella, an offshoot of the Reformati branch of the Franciscan Order. After making his novitiate at Ponticelli in the Sabine mountains, he was ordained on October 2, 1697. He completed his studies at the principal house of the Riformella S. Bonaventura on the Palantine in Rome.
St. Leonard became seriously ill and was sent to Porto Maurizio to recuperate at the monastery of the Franciscan Observants. After recuperating he was sent to the monastery del Monte near Florence. He began to give missions to the people of Tuscany which were marked by many extraordinary conversions and great results. He always practiced the greatest austerities and most severe penances during these missions.

In 1710 he founded the monastery of Icontro on a mountain peak some miles from Florence. In 1720 he crossed the borders of Tuscany and held his celebrated missions in Central and Southern Italy, enkindling with zeal the entire population. He made abundant conversions and often had to preach outside because the churches could not hold the thousands that came to hear him. He found many pious societies and confraternities. He exerted himself to spread the devotion of the Stations of the Cross, the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the perpetual adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament and devotion to the Immaculate Conception.

He was recalled to Rome when his health failed again. He died on November 26, 1751. Pius VI pronounced St. Leonard’s beautification on June 19, 1796, and Pius IX pronounced St. Leonard’s canonization on June 29, 1867. His feast day is celebrated on November 26 by the Franciscan Order.