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Spiritual leader for Cleveland's non-conformists leaves a legacy of slowing down and opening up

Tom Leonhardt, a spiritual leader from Cleveland, leads a group chant.
Carolyn Horvath
Tom Leonhardt leads a chant of the Gayatri mantra at Crown Point Ecology Center in Akron.

In a video recording captured a few years ago, Tom Leonhardt led a chant of the Hindu Gayatri mantra at the Crown Point Ecology Center in Akron.

Leonhardt — in his early 80s at the time — stood in a barn, surrounded by a small group of chanters. He wore a black T-shirt and a beaded South Asian meditation necklace as he taught the mantra’s words in the ancient language of Sanskrit.

"So it's call and response; is that going to be OK for you?" he asks the group.

The question seems to put them at ease. They smile and nod.

This is hardly the traditional picture of an ordained Catholic priest – which Leonhardt once was.

But according to his many followers, “untraditional” was Leonhardt's way — an approach he practiced until his death in December, at age 87, of complications from COVID-19.

"The people for whom he was most important were those who were neglected by or couldn't make it work in more institutional settings," said John McKinney, a psychiatric social worker from Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood.

McKinney first met Leonhardt more than 30 years ago. Leonhardt eventually became his spiritual director – teaching him how to meditate, for example.

"He used a prayer from the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn, who said, ‘Breathing, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I'm breathing out,’" McKinney said.

A traditional background

Drawing from different spiritual traditions was not an approach for which Leonhardt prepared early in his career.

Born in Toledo in 1934, he studied medieval Latin and religion in college. In the 1970s, he taught theology at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, eventually becoming ordained as a Catholic priest.

Tom Leonhardt was an ordained Catholic priest when he started Hope House of Prayer.
Carolyn Horvath
Tom Leonhardt was an ordained Catholic priest when he started Hope House of Prayer.

Then, in 1981, he started forging his own path. He rented space in an apartment house on West 69th Street, in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. He paid the rent with his own money. Two or three times a week, he'd host Catholic services that included teachings from other religious traditions.

Now called Hope House of Prayer, the space is still in the same building today.

A small gathering room is filled with overstuffed armchairs. On the walls are colorful paintings and photographs, many related to the liturgy, meditation, reiki and dance workshops he led here for more than 40 years.

"We can always pull in more chairs if we get a lot of people," said Carolyn Horvath, Tom's wife, who survived him, led Hope House of Prayer with him and lives there today.

Yes, wife. Tom left the priesthood in the late 1980s to marry Carolyn. She'd been a Catholic nun who met Tom during a retreat at Hope House, and she, too, needed to leave her Catholic order to get married.

Carolyn Horvath, Tom Leonhardt's wife, stands in front of a tapestry showing a symbol Leonhardt designed honoring nature and unity.
Justin Glanville / Ideastream Public Media
Carolyn Horvath, Tom Leonhardt's wife, stands in front of a tapestry showing a symbol Leonhardt designed honoring nature and unity.

Their newfound independence freed them to become even more far-reaching in their offerings, apparent from the wide array of art and artifacts that decorate the room.

"This picture over the couch is the cover of the book that he wrote, Praying with Aramaic Jesus," she said, pointing at a framed rectangle of rainbow colors. Then she pointed to a corner with a smiling Buddha statue.

"That's our Buddha corner, because we have meditation on Mondays," she explained.

The space is physically small, but spiritually large — a feeling that's intentional, according to Horvath.

"What people tell us is that it's very peaceful. They feel welcomed," Horvath said. "And from the beginning also we have said the door is open to everyone."

Cleaning houses and helping students

Welcoming everyone and forging their own path wasn’t always easy or luxurious.

For the first 10 years after they got married, when they were in their 50s and 60s, Tom and Carolyn cleaned houses to pay their bills.

Later, they added to their income by working as "simulated patients" at the Kent State University College of Podiatric Medicine, giving feedback so students could practice their bedside manner.

Dr. Edweana Robinson of Kent State hired them more than 20 years ago.

"I want to be like Tom," she said. "I want to be a kind and gentle person."

Robinson said Leonhardt, with his shock of white hair and often sporting a rainbow peace symbol on his windbreaker, became a familiar and beloved presence on campus. Not just for his words but his way of being.

"Sometimes we are so rushed, we are so pushed that we forget all we want to do is get the job done as opposed to working to make the world better," Robinson said. "And he did. And that's what I want to remember is how I should treat other people."

Tom Leonhardt and Carolyn Horvath had been married for 32 years.
Carolyn Horvath
Tom Leonhardt and Carolyn Horvath had been married for 32 years.

Slowing down, being present, being kind — Carolyn Horvath said those are her husband's greatest legacies.

Since he died a few months ago, she's been going through a dog-eared copy of The Little Prince. He used it as his only textbook early in his career as a theology teacher. It's full of passages he underlined, one of which Horvath read aloud:

"And all day, he says over and over, ‘Just like you, I am busy with matters of consequence,’ and that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man, he is a mushroom."

Horvath laughed, her eyes welling.

"I like that one a lot," she said.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.