Now at Holy Apostles Parish in Meridian, Father Legerski spent many years as a chaplain to high school and college-aged students.
Father John Legerski was honored at the March 17 Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. (ICR photo/Vero Gutiérrez)
‘When I was in a parish, I would meet with parishioners for one hour a week, and it would be on my turf and my agenda. With the kids, it was eight hours a day, five days a week, and it was me entering more into their lives and being able to bring the Gospel to them. That was so energizing.’
-- Father John Legerski
by Emily Woodham
Sharing the Good News of Jesus’ unconditional love with others is the driving force in Father John Legerski’s priesthood. This year the parochial vicar of Holy Apostles Parish in Meridian celebrates his 40th ordination anniversary.
Father Legerski was recognized by Bishop Peter Christensen at the March 17 Chrism Mass, during which priests renew their vows. Also recognized for marking 25 years as a priest were Father Antony Chinnabathini, who serves in Rathdrum and Spirit Lake, and Father Calvin Blankinship, who is retired.
Father Legerski was born in Idaho Falls, but his family moved to Menlo Park, Calif., when he was in elementary school. However, by the time he was in high school, the family had moved back to Idaho, and he graduated from Mountain Home High School in 1970. He was one of very few high school graduates to receive an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, but his poor eyesight made him choose to come back to Idaho and enroll at Boise State University.
Even though he is a cradle Catholic from a faithful family, it wasn’t until the summer before he enrolled at Boise State that his faith became personal. Not wanting to give the Baptists too much credit, he said wryly, his spiritual awakening happened at a Baptist revival that he attended to impress a young woman he liked.
He carried this newfound love for God with him as he joined the Newman Center (now St. Paul’s Student Center) at Boise State. Even in his studies of biology, he would have faith experiences while looking through a microscope, awed by the details of cells.
Gradually, he began thinking about seminary. One day on the BSU campus and still considering priesthood, he was stopped by a “Moonie,” a member of the Unification Church that follows the teachings of Sun Myung Moon. After sharing his personal beliefs, the Moonie asked Father Legerski if he was interested in spiritual things. To his own surprise, Father Legerski blurted out, “Well, as a matter of fact, I am. I’m planning on becoming a Catholic priest.”
A priest encouraged Legerski to go to seminary even if he wasn’t completely certain about his call. “You don’t go to the seminary to become a priest,” the priest told Legerski. “You go to the seminary to find out if you should become a priest.”
After graduating with his degree in biology from Boise State, Father Legerski requested to attend St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif., because his family had lived near that seminary when he went to school in Menlo Park from 1962-68. Legerski was the first seminarian from the Diocese of Boise to attend St. Patrick’s.
He was ordained on May 6, 1981 and was assigned to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Boise when Monsignor Andy Schumacher was rector. “He was an amazing mentor and role model,” Father Legerski said of Monsignor Schumacher. “I went to the seminary to learn my theology, but I learned my priesthood from Monsignor Andy and the parishioners.”
His first Mass, after his time at the Cathedral and being assigned to St. Anthony in eastern Idaho, was in a deserted storeroom of a train depot in Ashton. “It had a dirt floor and a big window that looked out onto a horse grazing. It was an extreme difference from the Cathedral,” he said.
After serving in parishes, he was named chaplain at Bishop Kelly High School in 1990. Father Legerski loved teaching theology and biology, but in 1992, the diocese could no longer afford a full-time chaplain at Bishop Kelly. Legerski’s love for ministering to youth led Bishop Tod Brown (1989-1998) to assign him as priest at St. Paul’s Student Center on the same campus where he had first declared his intention to become a priest. But the diocese cut his assignment short when there was not enough funding to keep St. Paul’s operating as its own parish.
The negativity about changing St. Paul’s from a parish to a student center chapel became overwhelming for Father Legerski, who requested a sabbatical for a year at St. Patrick’s Seminary. He then took another year to teach theology and to be a chaplain at an all-girls high school in the Silicon Valley.
He loved teaching and ministering to youth. “It was special for me. When I was in a parish, I would meet with parishioners for one hour a week, and it would be on my turf and my agenda. With the kids, it was eight hours a day, five days a week, and it was me entering more into their lives and being able to bring the Gospel to them. That was so energizing,” Father Legerski said.
He returned briefly to parish work in Idaho, but missed his work with youth and in the classroom. “Father Bill Taylor once said to me, ‘You have got to follow your passion if at all possible.’ I always thought that was good life advice.”
Bishop Mike Driscoll (1999-2014) encouraged Father Legerski to seek positions with schools, giving him permission to serve as chaplain and teacher for two more schools, one at Marist High School in Eugene, Ore., and another at Bishop Manogue High School in Reno. One of Father Legerski’s joys was to show students how faith and science were not opposed to each other.
In 2014, he returned to Idaho, as parochial vicar at Holy Apostles.
Among his passions as a priest is studying the documents from the Second Vatican Council. “It’s heartbreaking to me the way some Catholics have been backtracking on Vatican II,” he said. Instead of addressing difficulties that should be corrected, it concerns him that so many people want to retreat to the past, he said.
“We never really have given what the Council was calling us to a chance,” he said. “We never really have allowed ourselves to truly be that kind of Church. We need to embrace that we are the Church, we are the Body of Christ.”
Father Legerski was in the last class at Holy Rosary Catholic School in Idaho Falls to learn the Latin Mass. Because of their experience with Vatican II, he and other priests who were ordained in the 70s and 80s consider themselves “John XXIII priests,” after St. Pope John XXIII (1958-63) who started the Second Vatican Council. These priests, having experienced the Church before Vatican II and the positive changes that came from the Council, want to keep the “spirit of Vatican II” alive in the Church.
Father Legerski has no regrets about becoming a priest.
“I had big plans for myself when I was younger, but really I cannot picture myself ever having done anything that would be as meaningful and as rewarding as to share God’s Word,” he said. He said he loves to preach, to lead people in prayer and the sacraments and “to share with them the love that God has for us.”
One of his favorite topics for homilies is to preach God’s unconditional love. “There are still so many who live in fear of God or fear of punishment. To be able to bring to them, day after day after day, the message of Jesus is a highlight of my priesthood,” he said.
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