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An Interview with Father Leo McDowell

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: When and why did you decide to be a priest?

Father Leo: I had thought about becoming a priest at various times from about middle school until I had entered college. I found myself getting more involved with the parish. The pastor I had during high school had retired the year I graduated. He was filling in for the pastor where I was attending college and invited me to lunch one day. He point blank asked me if I had ever thought of being a priest. I told him I had but offered several reasons why that probably should not happen. He only responded, "Keep thinking about it." About two years later I became a seminarian for the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings.

Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was the most challenging course that you took and why was it so challenging?

Father Leo: I completed my B.A. at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon. I completed my M.Div. at Mundelein Seminary of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. I think the most challenging course was the Introduction to Theology with Father John Shea. The class include a very wide variety of theologians. I had difficulty understanding some and agreeing with others.

Gordon: What was your first assignment and what did you learn there?

Father Leo: It is interesting that my first assignment as a priest is also my current assignment. I was appointed as the parochial vicar at Saint Patrick Co-Cathedral in Billings, Montana. The new pastor, Father John Houlihan, and I arrived at the same time. I spent four years in at the parish at that time. I think the most important think I learned was that each priest has a particular skill set. We are not all alike and we relate to different people differently. I can not meet everyone's needs, but we can do a lot when we work together to meet the needs of those entrusted to our care. I returned to Saint Patrick Co-Cathedral now as the pastor and the newly ordained priest is assigned with me. I tell people that we are lucky here to have three generations of priests. My first pastor, myself and the new guy.

Gordon: Please share with our readers an overview of your service as Chaplain US Air Force Reserve and what are some of your fondest memories of your service?

Father Leo: I mentioned that I had completed my B.A. at Mount Angel Seminary. I actually started college at Montana State University. My first year there, I was in the Air Force ROTC program. I had always been interested in the Air Force. My first year at Mundelein Seminary, I became a chaplain candidate for the Air Force. I spent four years as a chaplain candidate. A year after my ordination I asked the bishop for permission to continue as an Air Force Chaplain. He gave permission and I spent a total of twenty-three years in the reserve program. I was mobilized twice after 9/11. I spent November of 2001 through September of 2002 covering in Grand Forks, North Dakota and on Guam while their active-duty priests were deployed to the war zone. After that I went to Diego Garcia as a forward deployment. It is a part of the British Indian Ocean Territories. In the summer of 2008, I was mobilized again and was sent to Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. It was a transition point for those going into Afghanistan. I had the opportunity to meet military members from different parts of the world. Some of my fondest memories are the families I got to know through my time in the Air Force. I've been asked to be a confirmation sponsor for a kid from one of the families I met on Guam and been asked to preside at a couple of weddings.

Gordon: When did you serve as a Volunteer Emergency Medical Technician and what were your primary responsibilities?

Father Leo: While serving in my second assignment I had a little bit of time on my hands. The phone did not ring a lot. The parish was rural. I served three communities spread across close to 9,000 square miles. I had about 300 families. Growing up I liked to watch a TV show called "Emergency!" I as impressed with what they were doing. After returning from my first mobilization with the Air Force a class was being started for those interested in joining the local ambulance service. I worked my parish schedule out in such a way that I was able to attend the training. I passed the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians exam and served eight years as an EMT-Basic level. As an EMT-B I responded to all sorts of needs. Some where simply needs of transporting people the 82 miles from Jordan to Miles City, Montana for tests and waiting a few hours in town before returning them to Jordan, to tragic accidents where they did not make it any further than to the local clinic.

Gordon: When did you start serving as a volunteer at The Boy Scouts of American and what have been some of your fondest memories of your service?

Father Leo: I've been involved with the Boy Scouts of America since my youth. Between my 8th grade year and my start of high school my family moved from Wagner, South Dakota to Forsyth, Montana. While I had been in a unit while in South Dakota, that unit folded. After moving to Forsyth, I was able to get back involved with a local unit. My senior year of high school, I turned 18 and became an assistant scoutmaster. The summer after graduation I participated in a training program called Wood Badge. When I arrived at Montana State University, some of the staff for my Wood Badge course were living there. I got involved with the local district and after being ordained a priest, I became a member of the board for the Montana Council, BSA. I also got involved with the National Catholic Committee on Scouting. Over the years I've been able to attend several National Jamborees as a staff member, serve on summer camp staff and lead what was known at the time as the Junior Leadership Training (JLT)course. My times on staff for the for the various camping adventures were some of my fondest moments. Working with the young men and honing their leadership skills at JLT makes me proud when I see what many of them have accomplished.

Gordon: What are your primary responsibilities as State Chaplain Knights of Columbus?

Father Leo: I've served as the State Chaplain for the Knights of Columbus for almost two decades. My primary responsibilities are to be a spiritual guide to the state leadership, and to be a resource for parish priests and local councils in the programs that the Knights of Columbus have to offer. Many of those programs are great ways to help men get involved with the parish by reconnecting them to their faith.

Gordon: Where are some of the parishes where you have served as pastor

Father Leo: I mentioned my first parish and current parish, Saint Patrick Co-Cathedral. After my first four years, I spent almost eleven year serving Saint John the Baptist in Jordan, Montana, St. Francis Xavier in Circle, Montana and St. Francis de Sales in Richey, Montana. I did have a couple of breaks during that time for duty with the Air Force. From there I went to Fort Benton, Montana and served at Immaculate Conception Parish there and Saint Margaret Parish in Geraldine. I did not spend quite three years there. I spent the next nine years serving four communities around Livingston, Montana: Saint Mary Parish and School in Livingston, Saint William Church in Gardiner, Saint Margaret Church in Clyde Park and Saint Joseph Parish in Big Timber. Since last July I've been back to Saint Patrick. The past twenty-seven years has been a real ride. There have been a lot of adventures and a lot of learning

Gordon: Is there any advice you'd give to a new priest serving in a rural community?

Father Leo: I would really encourage them to get involved in the community. A priest who is involved can start to make a great impact on the smaller communities. Catholics and Protestants alike knew the Catholic Priest. I served in the community activities with the VFW. I went to their homes as an EMT. I rolled dice with them at the drug store to see who would by the coffee or Coke in the mornings. I fought wildland fires on their property. I did marriage prep for non-Catholic couples because they did not have a minister of their own in the community to meet with them.

Gordon: Is there any thing else you'd like to share with our readers?

Father Leo: I just want to remind them to pray for their priests. While there can be a lot of excitement in some areas of the job, there are also some heartaches. It's hard to bury friends. Not everyone is going to like the decisions that a pastor needs to make. Sometimes it is difficult to prioritize time or money to carry out the parish mission. They need your prayers to give them strength to do the work to which God has entrusted them.

Gordon: Thank you, Father, for taking time to answer my questions today.

Fr. Leo: Thank you for this opportunity to share some of my life and my experience of the Catholic faith as a priest.

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