The Bishop Who Never Was: Leo J. Steck

Friday, Dec. 13, 2013
The Bishop Who Never Was: Leo J. Steck + Enlarge
The Most Rev. Leo Steck, who was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Salt Lake City in 1948, was presented with a crozier purchased by both Catholics and Protestants Kirkwood, Mo., for his ordination. Courtesy photo/Diocese of Salt Lake City Archives
By Gary Topping
Archivist, Diocese of Salt Lake City

He would have made a wonderful bishop. Known for creative leadership, hard work and accessibility manifested by a huge grin, a booming laugh, and a promise to work among his priests rather than at their head, Bishop Leo J. Steck was the kind of bishop any diocese would want.

Bishop Steck came to the Diocese of Salt Lake City in 1948 as auxiliary bishop because of the failing health of Bishop Duane G. Hunt. Plagued by poor eyesight since childhood, Bishop Hunt’s vision continued to deteriorate after his episcopal ordination in 1937. A telling sign of that: in the diocesan archives are oversized missals with large, bold type, which were the only means by which, during the 1940s, Bishop Hunt was able to celebrate liturgies.

Realizing his increasing incapacity, Bishop Hunt had the wisdom and humility not to try to soldier on ineffectively, and so he requested an auxiliary bishop whom he could train to replace him. In 1948 Bishop Steck was ordained for that role.

Leo Steck was born and educated within the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Upon graduating from the eighth grade, he enrolled in Kendrick Seminary in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, and was ordained for the archdiocese in 1924. He won great acclaim in his first pastoral assignment at St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood, Mo., and was particularly loved by the students in the Catholic high school for his graduation sermons. At the time of his episcopal ordination he was presented with a crozier purchased by both Catholics and Protestants of Kirkwood, indicating an ecumenical adeptness that no doubt had brought his name forth as a candidate for Bishop of Salt Lake City. Another qualification for this diocese might have been his work as director of the Catholic Rural Life Conference, which raised money to support rural parishes.

Bishop Steck embraced his new assignment in Salt Lake City with characteristic energy, happily placing himself under Bishop Hunt’s tutelage to learn about the unique pastoral demands of his new diocese. Concerned that the meager Catholic population stretched throughout the far-flung diocese would not feel isolated or neglected, he made plans to visit all Utah parishes and to orchestrate funding efforts among well-heeled eastern Catholics to support ministry to rural Utahns.

His brief ministry as Auxiliary Bishop was a mixed success. In 1948 he negotiated purchase from the Episcopal Diocese of the residential center at the University of Utah, which became the Newman Center and eventually Saint Catherine of Siena Parish. Less happily, he published a leaflet called "A Foreign Mission Close to Home," appealing for financial support for the struggling mission diocese. Not intended for local circulation, it nevertheless fell into the hands of Mormons who misunderstood it as a spearhead for conversion of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Bishop Hunt had to work overtime to reassure our Mormon neighbors that Catholics had no intention of such a thing.

Health problems had dogged Bishop Steck for some years. Already in his first Missouri pastorate he suffered an attack of pleurisy, which developed into pneumonia and necessitated a long recuperation in a sanatorium. Much more seriously, he suddenly became ill during a fundraising tour of his home state in 1950 and suffered a stroke from which he did not recover. He died in a St. Louis hospital on June 19 at the age of 52. Bishop Hunt, whom he had been ordained to replace, outlived him, and Auxiliary Bishop Leo J. Steck never became the Ordinary of the Diocese of Salt Lake City.

Bishop Hunt’s health continued to deteriorate. In 1958 Joseph L. Federal of North Carolina was ordained Coadjuter Bishop with right of succession, becoming the Ordinary of the diocese upon Bishop Hunt’s death in 1960.

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