Circuit-riding priest: And, yes, standard attire some days is a black leather jacket and boots

By Julie Birkedal
Mason City Globe-Gazette
November 22, 1999

The Roman Catholic priest at Rockwell, Dougherty and Rockford serves parishioners living miles apart. And he serves them by motorcycle whenever possible.

The Rev. Leo Riley, 43, is no newcomer to North Iowa although this is his first year at Sacred Heart, St. Patrick's and Holy Name.

Students in Riley's parishes attend seven school districts. There are parishioners living west of Interstate 35 and others with Marble Rock addresses.

"I think he's just going to be a wonderful asset to the parishes. He just seems to fit in with everybody, the younger people and the older people, too," said Mary Sturges, a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Rockwell. "The one thing that I've been especially pleased with is he's made it his business to visit the sick and the shut-ins."

On Sundays, Riley adjusted the weekend Mass schedules to accommodate one pastor serving all three churches. Formerly, one priest served Rockwell and Dougherty while Rockford had its own priest.

As a result, the Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's in Dougherty at 8 a.m. is a little earlier than it used to be.

Riley then goes to Rockford for 9:30 a.m. Mass at Holy Name and then heads to Rockwell for a Mass that has been pushed back to 11 a.m.

As a result of the schedule, time to visit on Sunday mornings is often cut short.

Riley returned to this area after spending a number of years at Postville and Clermont. For much of his first 12 years as a priest, he served parishes in Forest City, Lake Mills, Buffalo Center, Charles City, Roseville and Cresco.

"This has been home territory for me," he said.

Tim Staudt, chairman of the parish council at Holy Name in Rockford, said he has known Riley for about 10 years.

"He's not afraid to let people know what they need to know and call things the way he sees them," Staudt said. "He's pretty traditional in his background, in the way he approaches things."

Staudt said he thinks Riley is a good influence on young men in the Catholic church. In him, they can see that a priest can have an active life and be involved with people in a variety of fields.

Riley grew up in Marion and Cedar Rapids where he attended Regis High School.

"When I was in grade school and high school, and even college, there were a lot of people I respected who were priests in parishes that I attended," Riley said.

Although Riley said he thought about the priesthood as a high school student, he dismissed the idea at that time. He went to the University of Iowa where he graduated with a degree in business in 1978.

"I really couldn't see myself in some of the business roles that I'd envisioned," Riley said. "I kept coming back to the idea of the priesthood."

After much prayer and soul-searching, Riley said he saw a quote on a promotional brochure that encouraged him to give the seminary a try.

He attended St. Meinrad School of Theology in southern Indiana. In May 1982, he was ordained a priest.

In seminary, Riley said, many of his fellow seminarians were people embarking on a second career. Among them were business owners, university professors, former career military officers, veterinarians and a medical doctor.

"There were some extraordinarily talented people that I consider myself fortunate to have studied with," Riley said.

As a priest, Riley said his focus is largely a sacramental one in helping to meet the spiritual needs of the people in his parishes. Administrative duties are often delegated.

A typical day might involve visiting with someone who may be sick or dying at home, seeing other parishioners at the hospital and quite possibly dinner with a family at home.

"I tend to accept about every dinner invitation that I can get," Riley said. "That way you get to meet the people and the kids."

Sturges said she met Riley at the hospital when he visited her husband just a few days after coming to Sacred Heart.

"He's a motorcycle rider. He came in and he had the black jacket and black boots," Sturges said.

It was surprising, Sturges said, but Riley spent hours with their family and impressed them with his caring.

"He was with me the night my husband passed away," Sturges said. "He was so easy to be with, very comforting."

Ellen Crawford, of Charles City, said she and her husband, Dan, struck up a friendship with Riley about 14 years ago.

"If there's anything I needed, he would be the first one there," Crawford said.

The Rev. Steve Rosonke, pastor at St. Patrick's Church in Cedar Rapids, was ordained for the Archdiocese of Dubuque the same year as Riley.

"He's very honest in what he says and when you're speaking to him, you have no doubt about what he's thinking," Rosonke said.

In his free time, Riley likes to golf as well as to hunt and fish.

"I've been fishing but I haven't been hunting yet this fall," Riley said.

In high school, it was golf that was Riley's passion. He played golf for four years on the school team.

While Riley still plays, he jokes that "it really is amazing what a career does to your game." Yet his continued enjoyment of the game is evident.

He's been to the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota seven times. This year he said he missed it when he and a brother went to Ireland where they golfed on eight courses, all of them challenging.

There, Riley said, a player is either on the fairway or in deep gorse or heather.

"The beauty is awe-inspiring," Riley said.

Dr. Steve Earney, a Charles City dentist, said he and Riley have enjoyed golfing and boating together.

"He's always been kind of a free spirit. I've always admired the way he's orthodox and obedient to the church," Earney said.

Yet, Earney said, he's never known another priest with a motorcycle.

Weather permitting, Riley enjoys riding the Harley-Davidson Springer Softail he bought when he was serving Forest City, Buffalo Center and Lake Mills.

"I decided if I was going to cover the miles I might as well do it enjoyably," he said.

Riley said he travels at least 2,000 miles and spends 40 to 60 hours each month en route to meetings, church services and visits with parishioners.

On the motorcycle, there is no telephone. Riley enjoys the beauty of creation and time to think.

"It's an exhilarating feeling. It's almost like adult escapism," Riley said.


















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