Frankfort native remembered as strict preacher, gentle confessor

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Father John Leo Cooper was known for many things — but especially for his skill as a confessor. Many people sought him out even in his retirement.

“He was such a kind person,” said Chip DeMoss, a member of the St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Latin Mass Community in Westwood.

DeMoss remembered a client, a Catholic woman in her 80s, who had resumed attending Mass after decades of absence. She longed to receive the Eucharist, but was timid about the sacrament of reconciliation.

DeMoss reassured her and made an appointment with Father Cooper.

“The next time I saw her, she gave me a big hug,” said DeMoss. “She told me, ‘[Father Cooper] was so gentle and kind. I feel like a little girl who made her first confession.’”

Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher felt much the same way.

“Early on, I decided to make Father Leo my ordinary confessor,” said Archbishop Keleher. “He was a very gentle and loving shepherd as he heard my sins and gave me a penance.”

“I would often remark, when Father Leo was with me and other priests, that ‘Father Leo is my confessor. And thank goodness because of the seal of confession, he cannot tell any of you my many sins,’” the archbishop continued. “He would blush, and the others would laugh. I shouldn’t have done that, but I often did.”

Father Cooper, 96, who served as a priest of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas for 71 years, died on Feb. 21 at Villa St. Francis in Olathe.  He was the oldest and longest-serving priest in the archdiocese at the time of his death.
A Mass of Christian burial was celebrated for Father Cooper on Feb. 27 at St. Mary-St. Anthony Parish in Kansas City, Kan. Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher was the main celebrant.  Father Cooper was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Emmett.

Father Cooper was born on Dec. 2, 1917, in Frankfort, one of four children of John and Roxie Violet (Purnell) Cooper. He was named for his father, but to avoid confusion went by his middle name. Roxie Cooper was a convert to the Catholic faith.

The first hint of a vocation came while he attended the fourth grade at Annunciation School in Frankfort.

“A Benedictine Sister caught me outside one day and asked me if I had ever thought about becoming a priest,” Father Leo said in a 1992 Leaven article. “I think it was because she knew I couldn’t sing. I remember her telling Mom one time that she was going to put me on the altar [as a server] because I couldn’t sing a lick.”

The family moved to Basehor, where the future priest excelled in track while attending Basehor High School. After graduation in 1935, he attended Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Mo., and then St. Louis Preparatory School in Webster, Mo.

His plans to attend the Pontifical North American College in Rome were thwarted by the onset of World War II. Instead, he entered Kenrick Seminary in Webster. Following graduation, he was ordained a priest on Feb. 2, 1943, by Bishop Paul C. Schulte at St. Benedict Parish in Atchison.

During his formation at Kenrick, Father Cooper became involved with the Legion of Mary and remained a tireless promoter of the Marian apostolate for the rest of his life, especially among home schooling families. He promoted the Legion among the youth and adults in the archdiocese, and traveled to Israel, the former Czechoslovakia, Romania, Kenya and Turkey for the Legion.

He was a friend and spiritual adviser to many, and a friend of the Latin Mass Community.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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