Making a change of guard - Catholic Courier

Making a change of guard

Even though he was stationed an ocean away with the U.S. National Guard in Kosovo, Father William B. Leone often asked during the past year how things were going at St. Anne Parish in Rochester, where he is pastor.
 
Father Peter Abas, St. Anne’s temporary parochial administrator while Father Leone was away, always had one response.
 
“Father Bill, you take care of the soldiers, I’ll take care of St. Anne’s,” Father Leone recalled hearing over and over again.
 
Dec. 1 and 2, parishioners welcomed back Father Leone at a reception following each weekend Mass. He had been deployed with the U.S. Army National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division as part of a multinational peacekeeping force in the war-torn Serbian province of Kosovo, which is under United Nations administration.
 
“We’re very glad Father Leone is here safe and sound,” said parishioner Judy Bates.
 
“We missed him, but Father Peter was just wonderful,” parishioner Mary Jane Griffin said. Father Leone said he was grateful to the entire parish staff and to Father Abas for taking on added responsibilities in his absence. Father Abas recently finished his doctorate at the University of Rochester and has plans to travel to his native Borneo to visit his mother.
 
Father Leone’s deployment, which included training in the United States and a year at Camp Bondsteel in eastern Kosovo, was his first long-term deployment abroad during his 27-year career with the National Guard. Now 60, the priest said he is eligible to retire from the National Guard and intends to do so.
 
He said he didn’t feel hesitation in deploying. “I just felt it was my time, and that I should go to support the soldiers as a Catholic chaplain,” Father Leone said.
 
Kosovo is about the size of Rhode Island and has about 2 million residents. United States military involvement in the province dates back to 1999, when it and NATO forces bombed the province to stop former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic from killing ethnic Albanian separatists.
 
Ethnic tensions continue to this day. Kosovar Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the province’s population, have attempted to assert the territory’s independence, while the country of Serbia has attempted to retain control over the territory, which it said played an important role in the beginnings of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
 
The people of Kosovo live in poverty, Father Leone said. “The average income is about 250 euro a month (about $370), if you have a job at all,” Father Leone said. “The biggest industry there is smuggling.”
 
Everything is smuggled into the city, including tobacco, alcohol and medical supplies, he said. Mercy Sister Roberta Rodenhouse, the parish’s pastoral associate, said Father Leone has shared several stories about Kosovo’s needs, such as how young people who want an advanced degree must go out of the province to study.
 
“The churches were not heated,” she said. “There were no books, but they all sang from the heart.”
 
Father Leone said the Kosovars showed great faith and hospitality. “I was inspired by the simple liturgies,” he said.
 
Sunday mornings he was able to visit the 24 parishes in the diocese of Prizren, which covers all of Kosovo, and he said Mass Saturday and Sunday nights for soldiers. Although Catholicism in the region dates back to the time of St. Paul, only 3 percent of Kosovars are Catholic. A majority of the population converted to Islam during a 15th-century takeover of the region by Islamic Ottoman Turks.
 
Father Leone said during his deployment he was surrounded by inspirational soldiers, such as Lt. Col. Andy Lawlor, a judge advocate officer who called on his local Knights of Columbus council to send supplies and aid.
 
“He devoted much energy and time to teaching English to young Albanians,” Father Leone recalled.
 
Father Leone said the United States can be very proud of its young soldiers, who make personal sacrifices to serve. “They bring their lives with them, the good experiences, the difficult experiences, they carry those forward,” he said. “The suffering for them was that they were so far from home to deal with problems.”
 
Though he has returned, Father Leone requested that the parish continue to display a yellow ribbon, as it has throughout his deployment, Sister Rodenhouse noted.
 
“He said we should not take it down until all the soldiers return,” she said.

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