Bishop Leo T. Maher, the outspoken leader of the Diocese of San Diego for more than two decades, died at his Mission Hills home Saturday morning. Maher, 75, had undergone two surgeries for brain cancer last year.
Maher ignited storms of controversy with his stands on homosexuality, birth control, pornography and abortion. He had barred then-Assemblywoman Lucy Killea from receiving Communion because of her abortion rights stand in a special 1989 state Senate campaign--the first sanction ever imposed against an elected American Catholic official.
Many of those who knew Maher remembered him as a compassionate man who initiated an unprecedented dialogue between Catholics and Jews while developing social services for blacks, Latinos, Vietnamese and Filipinos.
“He was a vigorous, decisive, youthful man with a lot of personal charm,” said Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, who had worked as an auxiliary bishop under Maher for three years beginning in 1969.
Maher died as his brother, Father Raymond Maher, whispered into his ear his favorite scriptural passage--"Abide by my love"--from St. John’s epistle.
Maher served nearly 48 years in the active priesthood, including 28 as a bishop and all but six of those as bishop of the Catholic Diocese in San Diego. He established 19 new parishes to keep pace with the burgeoning populations in San Diego and Imperial counties. When Maher arrived, there were about 300,000 Catholics in the region. Today, the diocese serves more than 450,000.
Maher gained wide attention when he denied Communion to Killea. A Times Poll conducted at the time showed that nearly two-thirds of Southern Californians regarded his actions as inappropriate.
For Maher, however, it was not the first time he had supported what turned out to be a controversial stance. Two years earlier, Maher announced that he would not allow any teaching about the use of condoms to students in the local Catholic elementary or high schools. Saying it was too vague, he also criticized the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops statement on the use of condoms and AIDS education. At that time, the bishops supported “morally correct” sex education.
“You always knew where you stood with him--he was decisive,” Archbishop Quinn said.
But at other times, Maher’s actions knit communities together.
In 1989, when the Jewish community became angered by the location of a Carmelite convent near the Auschwitz death camp, Maher kept the lines of communication open between the two San Diego communities, said Leslye Winkelman Lyons of the United Jewish Federation.
“Were it not for Bishop Maher’s interest, I doubt that dialogue would have taken place,” said Morris Casuto, director of the San Diego chapter of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
Maher also served 20 years as chairman of the Board of Trustees at the University of San Diego, which honored the bishop by renaming a hall for him last summer. It was not unusual, friends say, to see him strolling the campus, stopping to chat with students.
“Bishop Maher will be remembered as one of the most important architects of the development of the University of San Diego,” said Ernest Hahn, chairman of the Board of Trustees.
He “will be remembered as a man whose compassion for the poor, the homeless and the sick was limitless,” Mayor Maureen O’Connor said in a statement. “He will also be remembered as a strong spiritual leader who successfully guided the Catholic Community in San Diego through increased change.”
Before Maher retired in July, 1990, giving way to Bishop Robert H. Brom, he said: “We’re in the land of Junipero Serra and (like Serra) we never look back; we always look forward.” Maher is survived by his siblings: Raymond Maher, Martin Maher, Leonard Maher, Mary Claire Maher, Cecilia Vanersnick, Pauline Maher and Bernadine Kerr.
A reception for Maher will be held at the Church of Immaculata at USD at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Viewing will be from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. A vigil service will be held at 7:30 p.m. A funeral Mass will be held at noon Wednesday at the church.
Times staff writer Russell Ben-Ali in San Diego contributed to this story.