To outsiders, the tangible legacy of Msgr. Leigh A. Lehocky lies in the city block that houses a restored St. Peter’s Catholic Church, its revitalized parochial school and its spacious parish life center named for one of St. Peter’s native sons, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
But for Lehocky, the gentle, white-haired Roman Catholic priest who will celebrate his final Christmas Day Mass at St. Peter’s Tuesday, his greatest joy lies in the intangibles: the parish’s consistent, daily outreach to the poor and its growth as a vibrant downtown parish made up of 1,000 parishioners from 46 ZIP codes around the Midlands.
“Our parish has long since lost its neighborhood,” Lehocky observed as hundreds of well wishers gathered last week for a retirement farewell. But as the residential neighborhood disappeared amid construction of the city library, the post office and other corporate structures along and beyond Assembly Street, something else blossomed.
A congregation made up of people of different races and ages, of diversity in social and economic circumstances, came together on Sundays and during the week, coalescing amid their differences around the gospel of Jesus Christ. “I’ve always been proud of that,” Lehocky said.
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“Being downtown, I’m also proud we share the same address with the Oliver Gospel Mission – the corner of Taylor and Assembly Streets,” he said. St. Peter’s regularly provides meals to the men’s mission across the street. The church also feeds more than 300 people daily through its ministries. It’s St. Vincent de Paul Society partners with First Baptist church to cook and serve holiday dinners to those in need, drawing hundreds at Christmas and Easter. Catholic Charities, housed inside the St. Peter’s complex, provides comfort and aid to the less fortunate through its myriad of programs.
“I like to say we have congregants to be fed at the altar, and congregants we feed physically,” he said.
St. Peter’s, founded in 1821 as a place of worship for Irish immigrants working on the Columbia canal, keeps its sanctuary doors open during daylight hours for anyone seeking a quiet place for prayer and reflection. Through the years, it has not been unusual for the city’s homeless to walk though those doors and seek out Lehocky.
“He would tell us stories about street people who wander into the church,” said the Rev. L. Wayne Bryan, a longtime Presbyterian friend and retired executive minister of the Christian Action Council. “He didn’t say, ‘Go away.’ He would just say, ‘Why don’t you sit down and we will talk.’ It was always kind and gentle and understanding.”
Lehocky’s open manner made him a favorite among the youngsters at St. Peter’s Catholic School, which he also attended as a child growing up in Columbia. When he conducted his final weekly children’s mass, they presented him with gifts, including a dove of peace.
“I thought he was very devoted,” said Kirk Nguyen, 12, who graduated from St. Peter’s and now attends Cardinal Newman Catholic School. “He was the perfect definition of a priest.”
Nadia Stradford grew up in St. Peter’s, attended its school and has never really known a time when Lehocky was not her priest.
“He married me and baptized my two children,” Stradford said. In 1987, when Pope John Paul II came to Columbia and worshipped at St. Peter’s, Stradford, then in the third grade, was there to stand in the pew to shake the Pope’s hand. She had earned the honor by writing the winning school essay about the pope and his visit.
It was “Father,” as Stradford and other parishioners address Lehocky, who persuaded her she needed to become a lector, reading the scriptures during Mass.
With his retirement and departure from St. Peter’s, “It’s like part of my life is closing out and God is making way for something new,” Stradford said. “I can’t let it be all about me. God is opening doors not just for him but also for me.”
When he arrived at St. Peter’s in 1985, Lehocky was essentially returning home, having grown up in the congregation. He studied at USC before his seminary training and was ordained in 1968.
As he grew into his position at St. Peter’s, he began to take on leadership roles in the community, teaming with Bryan and other pastors in the Christian Action Council to spread an ecumenical spirit, lifting a veil that often separated Catholics from Protestants even as they tackled such issues as alcohol abuse and video poker.
He was appointed vicar for ecumenical affairs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston and remained in that role for a decade. Lehocky has also been a leader in movements such as LARCUM, the South Carolina-based ecumenical organization formed of Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics and United Methodists.
“He was committed to the whole ecumenical enterprise and conversation and we worked together, but he also had a bishop, Bishop (David) Thompson, equally committed,” Bryan recalled. “When you had the chief persons responsible for this, it meant that Catholic leaders were great leaders in the ecumenical endeavor.”
“He is so committed and capable in the projects that he works in,” Bryan said.
In 1996, Lehocky joined more than 100 clergy in calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House dome, a move that gathered momentum and led to a silent march in January 1997 around the Carolina Plaza, which was where the legislature was then meeting. The flag was lowered in 2000 and placed at the Confederate Soldier’s Monument on the State House grounds.
In 2000-2001, Lehocky led a 16-month, $2 million restoration of the Gothic-style church, followed in 2009 by the construction of the $3 million Bernardin Center, both projects overseen by architect John Boudreaux. The interior of St. Peter’s sanctuary became a glorious feast for the eye, highlighted by the work of Columbia artist Christian Thee. The church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“This block has been updated, renovated and rebuilt by Father Lehocky,” said Emily Hero, parish life coordinator.
Msgr. Richard Harris, his colleague across town at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Devine Street, said Lehocky has brought intelligence and compassion to his service.
“He is an extremely intelligent and compassionate priest who has a deep love and genuine care for those he is called to serve,” Harris said. “He especially reaches out to those who are on the margins of society, those the world oftentimes avoids or treats with disrespect and lack of Christian charity.
“It is always good to be in meetings with him when he contributes to the conversation. He has a wonderful natural ability to see both sides of any situation or difficulty, and bring a clearer and unique perspective to the discussion,” Harris said. “His focus is always justice, dignity and fairness for all parties involved in the discussion. For this, I admire him.”
Lehocky is 70, the mandatory age for Roman Catholic priests to retire from full-time priesthood. He plans to get some well-deserved rest, moving just enough distance away “so as not to get in the way” of the incoming pastor, the Rev. Gary Linsky, a U.S. Air Force colonel and chaplain. His final day at St Peter’s is Dec. 31.
“He is going to leave an amazing legacy,” said Willie Hampton, who attended the farewell reception. “There is nothing bad you can say about him.”
Don and Billie McMahon also were there to bid Lehocky well and to honor him for his leadership in the parish and for being, what Don McMahon described as “a very, very positive force in reaching out to those in need.”
The McMahons joined St. Peter’s when their son started first grade at St. Peter’s school. They discovered Lehocky was a priest who could bring people of different perspectives together in support of the Christian faith and outreach.
“He doesn’t drift off the point of the Gospel,” Billie McMahon said. “You always feel uplifted when you go.”