Father James Lenhart, U.P. Leader

Born December 28, 1871 at Camberg, Limburg, Hesse-Nassau, Prussia, Germany. It is alleged he was born a Lutheran but converted to Catholicism. He received a classical education in Germany where he studied at the Marie Enstat (Also written Marle Eastel. Do they mean Marienstatt Abbey?). From there he went to Rome and studied for the priesthood, gaining his PhD at the age of 19. He furthered his studies by undertaking three years of theology which he completed at the age of 22. Threatened with illness, he went to Innsbruck, Tyrol, and later traveled to Leuven, Belgium, where he met Cardinal Desire-Joseph Mercier, prefect of Catholic University of Leuven. Lenhart was persuaded to come to the United States to continue his studies.

Immigrated around 1894, perhaps earlier; he was ordained in Marquette by Bishop John Vertin (1844-1899) on July 5, 1894. Over the course of his 20 years as bishop, Vertin oversaw an increase in the diocese’s Catholic population from 20,000 to 60,000, the number of churches from 27 to 56, and the number of priests from 20 to 62. Lenhart spent his first year at Rockland. He served as pastor for Church of St. Agnes at Michigamme (37 miles west of Marquette) from December 1, 1895 to July 22, 1898, with additional duties at Ewing when their church, Church of the Sacred Heart, was attached to Michigamme as a mission.

Alfred Joseph Verville, his driver, later told the story: “Lenhart was collecting funds for the church from the loggers in Michigamme who were washing logs down the river. It was so dry that year that the rivers were drying up, so this Swedish man told Father Lenhart that he would give him $100 if he would pray for rain so they could work. As it happened, it began raining that very night and for several days so that a lot of the land got flooded. The Swede came back and told Father Lenhart he would give him another $100 if he would pray and make it stop.”

He first assumed charge of St. Agnes Catholic Church in Iron River on September 3, 1897 (or September 1, 1898). He directed the building of the old St. Agnes Church and placed documents in the cornerstone (1901) predicting the economic future of the area in the iron ore industry.

As St. Agnes was the only Catholic Church on the west side of Iron County (until 1910 when the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish was founded), Father Lenhart had a large area to serve. He had a wide acquaintance among the mining community and was interested in the progress of the iron industry that provided a livelihood for so many of his parishioners.

December 25, 1924: Lenhart suffered a heart attack Christmas morning and has been confined to his bed since. By December 30, he was improving. Although no time was given when he would be about again, the attending nurse reported it would be at least a week. A visiting priest has been in charge of St. Agnes Catholic Church services since his illness. Much anxiety was felt over his condition in the early hours of his illness, and announcement of his improvement will be received with joy.

In 1926, he was named dean of the district, which includes Iron, Dickinson and Gogebic counties.

September 17, 1929: Lenhart returned from a two months trip abroad. “I sailed,” he said, “from Southhampton on the S.S. Seregaria, which beat its own former record in crossing to New York. By just two minutes,” The ship crossed the Atlantic in five days, 17 hours, and 13 minutes.

1930: niece Agnes Lenhart (b. 1903) lived with him. She would leave soon, going to Chicago and becoming Mrs. Agnes Castro. Agnes leaving would have unforeseen consequences.

January 1930: spoke to the Kaukauna Rotary Club, informing them of the rich supply of iron ore in the Upper Peninsula. Perhaps because of this visit, he became friends with William T. Sullivan, and would speak in Kaukauna multiple times.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Rectory and its pastor became a regular port of call for the hungry and the homeless. No one was refused help. May Kelly Barton had this to say about him: “Those who grew from childhood to adulthood when Father Lenhart was pastor should remember him as a most kind and loving person. No one remained a stranger to him for long. Many stories have been told of his charitable nature. When times were difficult, families would find in their yards a supply of wood or baskets of groceries. Often the families never knew from where they came. No one seeking help ever came to his door and left empty-handed.”

July 17, 1933: Magloire LaBelle, a former boxer, was arrested after punching Father Lenhart at the county fairgrounds before a baseball game. LaBelle had once been a star in the early 1920s throughout the Midwest, based in Manitowoc, but his life had gone downhill since his boxing dried up. LaBelle’s wife filed for divorce and took up work as Lenhart’s housekeeper, which made LaBelle upset. Lenhart was brought to the general hospital with a broken jaw and shock. Witnesses said one punch was all LaBelle needed to knock the priest unconscious. LaBelle left the scene, but was soon found by Sheriff Waite at the Jens Peterson farm in Iron River.

LaBelle was held in jail on $5,000 bond and Father Lenhart was still in the hospital a week later, as his jaw had actually been broken in three places and he had an underlying heart condition. Joe Brown, foreman at the Bates mine, came forward as a witness to tell of LaBelle’s brutality. The case was to go to trial in early August, but was delayed because of Lenhart’s slow recovery. This also delayed LaBelle’s divorce, because Lenhart was scheduled to testify as a witness.

LaBelle would end up serving three months in jail before the case was dismissed by prosecutor John C. Watson. The divorce went through in November 1933. LaBelle claimed that Lenhart “had done an alleged injustice to his family,” but Lenhart denied it. The newspaper did not elaborate on this.

The now-retired Father Lenhart’s service to his community was brought to an abrupt end on Saturday night, November 10, 1934 when LaBelle attacked him in his yard and brutally beat him to death. He punched, kicked and kneed him while he was on the ground lifeless. Coincidentally, police were nearby and were able to pull LaBelle off the body. The boxer allegedly said to them, “Don’t get excited over a little thing like this. You got here just in time because I had more dirty work to do tonight.” They interpreted this as a threat on his ex-wife.

Police brought him to jail in Dickinson County (rather than Iron County), fearing that mob violence would break out and the jail would be under siege. The Crystal Falls jail was declared “too rickety.”

Handcuffed to Trooper John Carstensen of Iron Mountain, LaBelle was brought to the prosecutor’s office at 10 o’clock Wednesday morning, the hour of the priest’s funeral in Iron River. Three other state policemen and Sheriff Thad R. Waite were with him.
The alleged killer’s first words were: “Secret stuff, eh? What’s this? A hearing or something? Why is it not in Iron River?”
Informed it was a preliminary examination in the murder of the cleric, the ex-pugilist snapped back: “I killed nobody. This is all crooked stuff.”
LaBelle admitted in the sheriff’s office that he slapped Lenhart once or twice but consistently denied any knowledge of a murder. “Who’s dead now? Father Lenhart? How do you know he’s dead? Where’s the proof? Lenhart’s still alive. He’s just hiding.”
“What’s your plea?” asked the justice.
“I don’t plead nothing,” LaBelle answered. “I want a public examination. Trying to charge me with murder! You help to break a man’s home up and then send him to jail. This is no hearing. It is a farce.”
Prosecutor John Watson called the first witness, traffic officer William E. Carlson, to the stand. After he was sworn in, Carlson repeated the testimony he gave at the coroner’s inquest Monday and told how he arrived at the church yard in time to see John Rombouts, city police officer, hurl LaBelle from the prostrated body of the priest who lay in the rectory yard.
“Have you any questions?” Watson asked LaBelle.
“No,” was his answer. “I don’t know what he’s even talking about.”
On Watson’s recommendation, Justice Webb bound LaBelle to circuit court on the charge and ordered he be held without bail.
As officers snapped on the handcuffs and started down the hallway of the court house, the prisoner raucously began singing “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.” (The song traces to the 1870s, but was popularized in 1923 by Wendell Hall and was featured in 1930s cartoons, including a 1933 cartoon with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. It is usually played on ukelele.)
“Let’s all sing,” he said and pounded his foot on the floor.
“What did the priest say when you hit him?” a reporter queried.
“You’re too curious,” was LaBelle’s answer.
“How long had you planned it?” he was asked.
“Planned what?” asked the ex-pugilist. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

More than 2,000 persons witnessed Father Lenhart’s funeral, including Mr. and Mrs. William Sullivan of Kaukauna, close friends who had been in town for three days. Fifty-four priests from upper peninsula and northern Wisconsin parishes gathered to honor the man. Celebrant of the solemn requiem mass was Rev. J.B. Moriarity of Ironwood, who succeeded Father Lenhart to the deanship of the district. Fully an hour before the services began, the church was filled with sorrowing hundreds. They packed every aisle. They filled the entire balcony. They took every available inch of space in the building.
When they could no longer enter the church, they stood in the yard, their hands bared, many without heavy clothing, while a cold wind blew during the entire service. The Duc d’Abruzzi of Caspian, Italian lodge of which the priest was an honorary member, was among the contingents which could not find room in the building.
Inside the church, the silvered coffin of Father Lenhart lay on a purple-draped stand at the front of the center aisle. Garbed in purple vestments, the priest’s body remained in view until the end of the mass.
Flowers banked the communion rail and two white crosses of blossoms stood at the front of the aisle. At the foot of the casket was a huge bouquet. Beside it and at the head, the candles glittered and made a circle of light around the bier.
While the district’s dean was celebrant of the mass, five other priests took active part in the service. Rev. Albert Treilles of Gaastra was deacon of the mass, Rev. Joseph Guertin of Crystal Falls was subdeacon, and Rev. Joseph Zryd of Ironwood was master of ceremonies, and acolytes were Rev. Casmir J. Adasiewicz of Iron River and Rev. Joseph Seifert of Ironwood.
The St. Agnes choir of 30 voices under the direction of Mrs. Guy M. Cox sang the mass during the services while Guy Cox sang Conrad’s “Pio Peso” at the offeratory.
Father Moriarity paid tribute to the man for his long service in the church and remarked that he had been an altar boy in Marquette when Father Lenhart said his first mass following his ordination there.
At the head of the procession marched the American Legion, wearing military caps and carrying flags. A muffled drum accompanied them. Next came the Duc d’Abruzzi in the full regalia of their lodge. Then marched the Knights of Columbus. Following them were the priests and the relatives, including Rev. E.J. Schmit of Appleton.
Pallbearers from the Knights of Columbus included Joe Malinowski, Fred Papin, Ray Mahon, Arthur Bouchard, Edward Brady and Ovid Jolly. As a symbol of the community’s grief, the school flags in the district were flown at half-mast.

November 27, 1934: LaBelle was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. After sentencing, LaBelle addressed the court, “Where is the body? That old priest is in Chicago laughing at you. This is the first murder I ever heard of where there’s no body. That’s all I have to say.”

December 1938: LaBelle was in the Ionia State Hospital (where he had been since April 1935) when a muskrat trapper found a note in a bottle that LaBelle had thrown out the window and floated down the Grand River east of Lowell. The note said he was trapped in “Michigan’s Secret Institution” and begged the recipient to contact his brother in Montreal to help free him. He died in Ionia State Hospital, Ionia County, Michiagn, on June 7, 1956.

“Punch drunk syndrome” first identified in the 1920s. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated trauma to the head. The encephalopathy symptoms can include behavioral problems, mood problems, and problems with thinking. The disease often gets worse over time and can result in dementia.

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