Biography of Father Pietro Leoni, SJ

Born into the family of a small estate owner in Premilcuore, Italy, in 1909. He finished elementary school in 1918 and until 1921 he worked on his father’s farm; in 1927 he graduated from seminary in Milan and became a novice in the Society of Jesus in Alban district. From 1931 he studied at the Gregorian University in Rome; in 1935 he graduated from the Russicum, and then learned conversational Russian at the Jesuits’ college; in 1939 he was ordained a priest of the Eastern Rite. In early 1940 he was at a Jesuit house in Florence; in the summer he was called up for service in the army, where he became a chaplain at a field hospital in Bologna. In March 1941 he went with the hospital to Albania; in June 1941 he was on the staff of the Italian Army in Greece; in August he was called back to Rome and appointed chaplain for the reserve field hospital of the Turin division, with which he went to Dnepropetrovsk, and then to Donbass. In 1942 he returned to Dnepropetrovsk. In May 1943 he left the USSR with the army and returned to Italy where he was demobilized. From July 1943 he served at a monastery in Rome, but then in September the Vatican appointed him pastor of a parish in Odessa. After his arrival in Odessa he was officially registered by the authorities as the pastor of the French church and a preacher. April 29, 1945 – arrested in Odessa; July 13, transported to Moscow and held in Lefortovo Prison. At his interrogation on July 19 Fr. Pietro stated: “Inasmuch as I am a religious Catholic, I was and I remain an opponent of Marxism and the political system now existing in the USSR – a system which, according to my convictions, is no different from fascism. I find that there is neither democracy nor freedom of the people in the USSR. The Bolsheviks who are now in power have turned the Russian people into their slaves, using their labor for their own interests.” On September 13 Fr. Pietro was presented with the indictment, which stated that “on assignment by the Vatician, [Leoni] came to Odessa to further the work of extending Catholicism among the Russian population, indoctrinating the faithful and Orthodox clergy into joining the Catholic Church, headed by the Roman Pope. While in the city of Odessa he carried out anti-Soviet agitation and disseminated anti-Soviet literature that called for a struggle with Communism.” November 12, 1945 – sentenced under Articles 58-6 and 58-10(2) of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR to ten years in corrective labor camp [Special Board, NKVD, USSR]. November 24 he was transferred to Butyrka Prison, where he met Fr. Jean Nicolas, with whom he had served in Odessa. About this meeting, Fr. Pietro would later recall: “Pale and emaciated, it was not so much pity for each other that we felt, but true pride to have become worthy to suffer so greatly for Christ. “ On December 12 Fr. Pietro was sent to Temlag (Mordovian ASSR) where, on June 15, 1947, he was drawn into the investigation in a case against “Volya, a counter-revolutionary organization.” The case had been fabricated by camp officials – the twelve convicts being tried in this case were named by an informant who had been quickly transferred to another camp sector not long before the arrest of the “members of the organization.” The charges against Fr. Pietro stated that he was “preparing an armed uprising of convicts at all the Temlag camp sectors” and also that, together with the “leader” Wujek Kochanowski, he had “drawn up the program, declaration, and plan of action – he prepared the full development of the conspiratorial actions, a signature form and an oath for members who joined the organization.” August 28-9, 1947 – a closed trial at which Fr. Pietro was sentenced under Articles 19-58-2, 58-10(1), 58-11 and 58-12 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR to twenty-five years of prison camp labor [Special Camp Court, Temnikov Corrective Labor Camp, USSR Ministry of the Interior]. September 8 he was sent under armed convoy to Dubravlag (Yavas, Zubovo-Poliansk region, Mordovian ASSR); on October 8, 1948, he was transferred to Rechlag (Vorkuta, Komi ASSR), where he was assigned to heavy labor which ended in December 1948 when he broke his collarbone. He spent five months in the camp hospital for the broken bones, and just as much time “for exhaustion.” The “Personal Case File of the Convict Leoni P.A.” contains many reports by camp officials, for which Fr. Pietro sat in penalty isolation cells for “insults” and “open incitement of convicts against the Soviet regime.” According to the memoirs of fellow camp prisoners, Fr. Pietro was very highly regarded within the camp and had great influence –“ his self-possession and manner of holding his own with the camp administration brought him the respect of all.” From 1951 the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs constantly inquired of the USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs as to the whereabouts of Fr. Pietro, but never received an answer. Then on October 10, 1952, the camp boss at Rechlag received an order from Moscow to send immediately, for forwarding to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a report of the camp medical commission and photographs of Fr. Pietro “decently attired and in a favorable view,” especially emphasizing that “the negatives should be touched up.” April 25, 1955 – the term of his sentence was decreased to seven years and Fr. Pietro was soon released from the camp [Special Collegium, USSR Supreme Ct.]. May 17, 1955 – handed over to representatives of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Vienna. From 1955 he served in a parish in Montreal, where he died July 26, 1995. Sources: Leoni, p. 148; Lichnoye delo zakliuchennogo P.A. Leoni, Archive of TsKhIDK, f. 461/p, d. 173999; Odesskii martirolog, p. 2; Osipova (1996), p. 181; Pokaianie, pp. 353-354, 385, 397; Investigatory Matter 7884, Archive TsGAOO (Ukraine); Schnurr, p. 377; Urwich, p. 192
Variant Names:
Leoni, Pietro; Leoni, P'etro Angelevich
Premilcuore (Province of Forlì-Cesena, Italy); Milan (Italy); Rome (Italy); Florence (Italy); Albania; Greece; Dnipropetrovsʹk (Ukraine); Donets Basin (Ukraine and Russia); Moscow (Russia); Odesa (Ukraine); Mordovii︠a︡ (Russia); Vienna (Austria); Montréal (Québec)
male; clergy and religious; survived