Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Who in the world is Fr. Leo?

My mom said on many occasions, “Son, you always choose the odd way to go!” She was referring to leaving my parents’ home in New York to attend Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles when I was 15 in order to study the arts of painting, illustration, life-drawing from high school teachers who were also successful professional artists. For me, drawing began at the tender age of seven when I drew a portrait of the neighbor’s jet black Scottie dog.

Mom thought it was especially ‘odd’ when I joined the Army Paratroopers in Fort Benning, GA, who sent me to the Philippines during WWII with the 11th Airborne Division.

Once again after separation from the army, Mom was shocked when I told her I was going off to the Jesuits right after studying art at the prestigious Bisttram School of Fine Arts on Wilshire Blvd in LA. Besides the usual long course of classical Jesuit studies, I continued to draw, paint and sculpt. I asked the Lay Brother who was cook in the seminary to cast a 100 gallon bar of homemade soap which I carved into my version of “The Thinker”. Thanks for the inspiration Monsieur Rodin! During the next rainy season we had soap suds floating down the hillside.

I continued my love of sculpture with such projects as a head of Christ in a block of walnut. The Dark streaks in the wood  coincided with where the tears of the suffering Christ streamed down. We had lots of hard sandstone in the seminary hills which I used to chisel a more than life-size head of Christ. The Christ was always my favorite subject, but I also carved a full figure of the Theotokos in walnut. In those pre-Orthodox years I knew the Theotokos only as the “Mother of God”. Another sculpture was of the bust of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Founder of the Jesuits, with which I was dissatisfied, so I threw it out the second story window of the seminary. Oh my! After three years of intense studies I was awarded an MA in Philosophy in spite of throwing sculpture out the window. My thesis was on the Aristotelian concept of Mimesis (art and imitation).

My informal career in art blossomed when I arrived in Japan where I studied and worked as a Jesuit missionary for 12 years. Japanese art and architecture became my new love.  I visited the ancient centers of Japanese art and architecture at every opportunity. After completing four years of theological studies with an MA in Theology, and one year of ascetical studies in Hiroshima, I began my four years of architectural studies in Tokyo. My first design project upon graduating from Tokyo University with a Masters degree in Architecture was a library for St. Mary’s School of Theology in Tokyo where I had studied theology for four years. During those years I continued to turn out sculptures large and small. One of my pet projects was a life-size Crucifix for a Japanese church near the seminary. The parishioners carried it in procession several miles to the church.

Upon my return to California in 1967 I began teaching courses in art and theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley under the auspices of the Jesuit School of Theology. It was while teaching there and working on a doctorate in Architecture (which I never finished) that I met Denise Mason, daughter of a Baptist Pastor from South Africa. Long story short - we married with the blessing of Rome in 1971. Last December we celebrated our 40th anniversary.

For some years I traveled as a ‘Catholic Evangelist’ but eventually found my way to Orthodoxy when I discovered the Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC). We moved to Santa Cruz County and became part of the historic movement of the EOC into canonical Orthodoxy. I taught Philosophy at Bethany Bible College during that time. Metropolitan PHILIP ordained me along with more than 30 others to the priesthood with such luminaries as Fr. Peter Gilquist, Fr. Jon Braun, and Fr. Jack Sparks. This was 1987 on the Feast of Pope St. Leo the Great. So I took the name Leo in hopes I might be a bridge of some kind between Rome and Orthodoxy. Still waiting. Perhaps through iconography?

Ever since becoming rector of the OCA St. Innocent Orthodox Mission on Father’s Day in 1996, I have been engaged in writing icons for the parish. I had no idea how far it would go. Now there are more than 50 icons that I have written for my parish church. I am still continuing this ministry so dear to my heart. Over the years I have taken workshops in icon writing from both Greek and Russian masters.

I was able to share my love for icons when I began doing workshops for interested students from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. We even formed an ‘Icon Circle’ to share our journey in iconography.

On October 1st of this year I will retire as rector of St. Innocent and remain there as an ‘attached’ priest iconographer. Retirement will free me up to offer workshops in iconography. My key PowerPoint presentation describes both the history and process of icon writing. I tie it all together with Bible references to the spiritual dimension of writing icons. Anyone interested in arranging for a lecture or workshop can contact me at Fr. Leo@comcast.net.

“In everything give thanks!,” 1Thessalonians 5:18


  1. Fr. Leo is my priest and a tremendously talented iconographer. He works quickly, too. He has left our church a tremendous legacy of icon art of tremendous beauty. If you decide to commission him, I know you will not be disappointed.

  2. I think his icons are luminous, beautiful and inspirational. I am an iconographer and belong to a group in Brisbane Australia. We meet every Saturday, painting in a prayerful manner so I believe that our attitude is one of prayerful and meditative attention. Although lay people, our spirituality and deference to our iconography, is infused with the right attitude. Thank you, Father Leo, for publishing your beautiful works.