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Joseph Leonard, class '95

In Memoriam

May 12, 1965
Joseph Leonard, class '95 - KnockUnion.ie

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It was a surprise to all who knew Fr. Leonard in recent years to read in his obituary notice that he was 87 years old. Of course we really knew he was something like that age, but nght up to the end of his life he had the freshness of outlook and the enormous range of interests of a much younger man. With his passing, one of the most colourful characters in the history of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission has left the scene.

Joseph Leonard, who hailed from Sligo arrived as a student to Castleknock College in 1893 and was head boy in his final year 1895. He returned to the College for a short spell after his ordination in 1903 and thereafter most of his active life was spent in St. Mary's College, Strawberry Hill, in the county of Middlesex. The present writer was a colleague of Fr. Leonard's on the College staff for some years and can remember the tremendous impact he made on his students. He got an enormous amount of work out of his men in the kindliest and most good-humoured but, nevertheless, inflexible way. He laboured under a very great disadvantage in that for the last twenty years of his teaching life he was extremely deaf. This deafness was the result of exposure in the trenches of Flanders during the first World War, through the entire period of which he served as Chaplain to an infantry regiment. Of his grim experiences during those years he has seldom been known to speak, and then, characteristically, only to make light of his trials. One of his younger confreres discovered that he had been present at the battle of Mons and the subsequent famous Retreat, and ventured to ask him what he had done during that historic engagement. If he was expecting to hear a tale of deeds of death-or-g!ory, he did not know Fr. Leonard.

“What did I do ? " said Father Joe.

"Now let me think. Ah, yes, I remember. I ran for seven days without stopping."

Perhaps, because of his deafness, he turned his great intellectual energies to a variety of literary interests, chiefly in the field of Vincentian studies. His three-volume translation of Pierre Coste's definitive Life of St. Vincent is still the finest work in English on the life of the Saint. In spite, however, of the hazard of his deafness, he had a wide circle of friends whom he treated with courtesy and deference, many of them outstanding literary personalities of his time. To the very end of his life this intimate circle of personal friends remained loyally attached to him. Mr. Denis Gwynn mentioned a few of these in the obituary he wrote on Fr. Leonard's death. They included critics like Robert Lynd, Desmond McCarthy and Raymond Mortimer, philosophers such as Baron von Hugel, historians such as Abbot Cuthbert Butler, as well as George Bernard Shaw. Mr Gwynn records in his article:

"I know that Bernard Shaw was one of his warm admirers. Shaw actually gave him his own corrected proofs of his play, ' Saint Joan ', with his own MS corrections, in gratitude for the discussions which they had together about the play while it was being written. The letters which passed between them show how ready Shaw was to allow criticism of the main thesis of his play, and how much he appreciated Fr. Leonard's unflinching corrections."

This is an interesting item of contemporary literary history.

Soon after he came to Strawberry Hill Fr. Leonard made the acquaintance of the American scholar, Wilmarth S. Lewis, who was later to undertake the production of a critical edition of Horace Walpole's Letters, sponsored by the University of Yale. Mr. Lewis, in his book, Collector's Progress, gives an account of his meeting with Fr. Leonard and an indication of how their friendship led to Fr. Leonard's being of assistance to him in building up his collection of Walpoliana at his home in Farmington, Connecticut. He writes: "My subsequent visits to Strawberry Hill were conducted in an orderly manner, by means of a proper introduction from Lady Lavery to the Vice-Principal, Fr. J. Leonard, the editor of St. Vincent's letters. My wife and I found that he had not only a just appreciation of Horace Walpole, but a deep and affectionate interest in everything American. We doubled his American acquaintance, our predecessors having been Lady Lavery and Henry James. On my first authorized visit to Strawberry Hill, Fr. Leonard pointed to a tiny fragment of moulding on the mantel of the fireplace in the Red Bedchamber. It was a bit of the original moulding, he told us. ' I am now going out of the room ', he said, and went. I looked at my wife. The intention was clear. What do you think ? I asked. Oh, no! We stood transfixed by moral rectitude. Fr. Leonard returned and saw the moulding untouched. The New England conscience, is it? Now I am going out again.' When he returned the second time, the moulding had disappeared. It has been followed to Farmington by other bits and pieces of Strawberry that Fr. Leonard sent over in the thirties : a strip of the painted ceiling in the library, a window from the Great Bedchamber."

Mr. Lewis made regular trips across the Atlantic in pursuit of his passion for collecting all things Walpolean, and regularly appeared at Strawberry Hill to discuss the progress of his work with Fr. Leonard. The second World War interrupted his visits, and just before the war Fr. Leonard retired from the College staff and came to live in Dublin. At the end of the war, Mr. Lewis's transatlantic trips were resumed and now, regularly, Dublin was taken in as part of the itinerary. It was only natural, therefore, that when his wife's niece came to Paris to work for a brief period as a journalist, Mr. Lewis should ask her to visit his old friend in Dublin. Many Castleknock men will now know that the niece. Miss Jacqueline Bouvier, came to know Fr. Leonard very well and was counted among his many friends. Many years ago, when the present writer visited him in Dublin, Fr. Leonard introduced me to Miss Bouvier and instructed me in turn to invite her to Strawberry Hill. I duly did so and, not having Fr. Leonard's instinct or flair for this sort of thing, can only regret ever since that I have no souvenir of the afternoon she spent with us on her way back to Paris. Some years later, when I paid a visit to the States, I wondered whether it would be correct to call to see Mrs. John F. Kennedy, as she then was, but I had Fr. Leonard's instructions to do so, and I found myselL being received in her house in the Georgetown suburb of Washington and given a tremendous welcome, just because I was able to bring her some news of the old man.

Requiescat in Pace.