In memorian (1928 – 2020)
(The Society of the Divine Word (SVD) Philippines announces with great sorrow the passing away of Fr. Leo Schmitt SVD, 92, this morning August 25, 2020. The body will lie in state at the Villa Cristo Rey, Christ the King Seminary , E. Rodriguez Blvd., Quezon City. Interment will be announced later. Requiescat in Pace.)
Rev. Fr. Leo E. Schmitt wins the 29th Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Award – September 26, 2016
Fr. Leo, the disciplinarian formator turned social worker…super energetic founder of communities and housing for the poor… with a huge heart for the poor!
He was born in Grunebach, Diocese of Trier in West Germany on May 9, 1928. He studied and was ordained in Germany in 1954. He is now 88 years old, and 62 years as a priest. He still at work, and refuses to be included among the retirees at the Villa Cristo Rey. He has indeed, done incredibly great corporal works of mercy!
After ordination, he went to England and for several years, he stayed at the St. Richard’s College for Foreign Missions before coming to the Philippines. (1958-60).
He was assigned for formation work, first at the Mary Help of Christians Diocesan Seminary in Binmaley, Pangasinan as prefect of the seminarians (1961-62).
Next, Christ the King Mission Seminary became his home for 35 years. (1962- 1997).
He was professor and prefect of the College seminarians (1962-70)
In 1970, his life changed dramatically, as he became more aware of the need to get involved in social work, a post Vatican II development. In the Philippine context, the need was more urgent because of the worsening economic and political situation. This was the time of violent activism, with the onset of the First Quarter Storm. The Church had to respond, and Fr. Leo proposed to start a project called ‘Action Leaven’, a movement for church people, to penetrate society and find out what the Church can do for the poor. The pioneer group of Leaveners was composed of 70 priests, nuns, seminarians, community organizers, engineers and agriculturist among others. It was adopted by CBCP as an experiment for the Archdiocese of Manila. Fr. Leo was its executive Director for 2 years, before it was turned over to the Archdiocese. The timing was unfortunate, because when Martial Law was declared by Marcos in 1972, social work was greatly hampered by government policies. Fr. Leo, however, had been magnetized to work with the poor.
Shortly after leaving the Action Leaven, some 800 families sought his help after being forced to leave the depressed community of Pleasant Hills, Mandaluyong. He was thrown into the herculean task of looking for a relocation site for the squatter community. Together with 2 SVD confreres, 2 sisters and 5 laymen, Fr. Leo created a foundation possessing a legal personality that would address the problem of informal settlers. On September 28, 1971, the SAMAHANG BAGONG BUHAY FOUNDATION INCORPORATION (SBBFI) was formally registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission as a non-stock and non-profit corporation.
From the time of the foundation’s birth, many housing projects were built: San Antonio Village in Antipolo; San Jose Freinademetz Subdivision in Cogeo, Antipolo; Janssenville Subdivision in Cainta, Rizal; San Agustin Village in Antipolo; San Lorenzo Ruiz in Bulacan and Antipolo; St. Francis Square, Payong, which is also in Antipolo.
Originally, Janssenville was part of the St. Anthony of Padua Parish. When the canonization of the then Blessed Arnold became certain in 2002, Fr. Leo approached the bishop about the plan of making Janssenville the seat of a new parish to be named after the SVD founder. It was eventually approved that a new parish should be erected “to thank St. Arnold for the services of his congregations to the Church, in particular to the Diocese of Antipolo and to promote his virtues.” On 30th of November, 2003 the St. Arnold Janssen Parish was canonically erected. It was the first and only permanent religious parish in the Diocese of Antipolo. On January 15, 2004, Fr. Leo was installed as its first parish priest.
The diocesan bishop of Antipolo, Gabriel Reyes, says, “though restricted by old age, Fr. Schmitt remains a vibrant and enthusiastic inspiration for all the clergy…both diocesan and religious. His life of simplicity, faithfulness, humility and pastoral service is his best contribution for mission.”
Fr. Schmitt renounced his German citizenship and embraced Filipino citizenship to show his commitment in alleviating the pangs of poverty and homelessness among the poor Filipinos. Truly, he is an SVD who not only shared the vision of St. Arnold Janssen, he has also lived a life in mission.
The Society of the Divine Word Philippine Central Province gave the ST. ARNOLD JANSSEN MISSION AWARD to Fr. Leo in 2014, in recognition of his exemplary efforts in integrating and concretizing Mission as vision and action.
Today, Fr. Leo asserts that, “You cannot go wrong if you work on the premise of a Christian value and the development of the total person.” Indeed, Janssenville and the other communities founded by Fr. Leo and the Samahang Bagong Buhay Foundation remains a strong source of hope and inspiration in their community building and the upliftment of every person’s dignity.