A year ago Deacon Curt Leuenberger lay in an Anchorage hospital surrounded by his wife, family, friends and clergy who gathered to pray, to perform last rites and then to say a final goodbye. The diseased and broken body of this former big game guide who once hunted Kodiak brown bears for a living was shutting down. After 52 years, four children and 10 grandchildren he was unconscious and stretched out on a hospital bed. His life was in the final stages of a premature end, so it seemed.
THE STRUGGLE BEGINS
Just three years before, Deacon Leuenberger’s life was much different. A large, jovial man with a bushy brown beard and a deep laugh, he was just hitting his stride, two years into his life as an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church.
Stepping out of his comfort zone and responding to what he describes as a direct call from God, Deacon Leuenberger had studied and trained for five years in order to serve in the same parish he had attended since age 11. He was marrying parishioners, baptizing babies, visiting prisoners and ministering to rural Alaska churches and missions that were without a priest.
His straight forward, honest homilies came from a man who had always taken his faith seriously but who also had two feet firmly planted in the landscape and adventure of Alaska. He was also busy running an electronics business servicing local banks and did not foresee the coming struggles. They began with a mysterious illness.
For reasons doctors could never pinpoint, his kidneys began to fail. This would prove to be a far greater challenge than his numerous big-game hunts or encounters with charging grizzlies.
Those days were seemingly gone as Deacon Leuenberger and his wife Annie made regular trips to the hospital for dialysis treatment, to purify blood his ailing kidneys could no longer purge. On weekends he still assisted Father Jaime Mencias during Masses at St. Michael Church in Palmer, preaching when called upon and continuing his professional work.
TURN FOR THE WORSE
Then last fall Deacon Leuenberger’s caught a severe infection from his ongoing dialysis treatments, which was then complicated by a life-threatening allergic reaction to medication intended to help him.
“Things just snowballed from there,” he recalled in a recent interview with the Catholic Anchor.
With several more serious infections and dangerously low blood pressure, doctors induced a coma and placed him on life support. They told his wife Annie that he wasn’t going to make it and to “gather family quick.”
Phone and email alerts went out, prayer chains began and family and friends circled around his hospital bed. Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz was on hand along with several other clergy.
“Everybody was there,” Annie recalled. “We all gathered and we prayed really, really hard.”
“The doctors had his entire family come from outside of Alaska to say goodbye because they were convinced he was going to die,” said St. Michael’s parishioner and parish life director Matthew Beck.
But then he didn’t.
“He came through,” Annie recounted, the sense of relief still evident in her voice and eyes.
The hospital let Deacon Leuenberger return home to Palmer but the respite was temporary.
Shortly after his near-death encounter, Deacon Leuenberger’s blood pressure was dangerously low and his liver began faltering due to all the medications he was on.
Over the next few months he made frequent trips to the hospital as medical providers attempted to stabilize his declining health.
During this time, St. Michael parishioners stepped up for the Leuenbergers, sending parish nurses to visit, praying at Masses, bringing meals to the house and even building a new deck with a wheelchair ramp.
But this past March Deacon Leuenberger was hit with more bad news when doctors said his liver was completely shot and he would need a transplant in order to survive. That meant an emergency trip to Seattle just to see if he was a viable candidate for a transplant — no guarantees.
Deacon Leuenberger’s voice softens when he recalls the news about his liver.
“All along I knew everything was up to God. I don’t worry about things,” he said. “You know when problems arise, I just pray about it and put it back in God’s hands.”
So he and his wife of 27 years flew to Seattle this past April hoping and praying against the odds.
A FINAL TEST
Still battling infections, Deacon Leuenberger underwent multiple tests before being approved as a viable transplant candidate. It was now a precarious waiting game.
“You hear so many stories about people being on a transplant list for months and months and sometimes years. Many people will die while they are waiting,” he reflected.
With her husband’s health fading fast, Annie sat at his side praying the rosary every hour of every day, while letters, cards and emails came pouring in with prayers and support. Without a transplant, doctors were not expecting Deacon Leuenberger to make it through the week.
Despite once again approaching the threshold of death’s door, the trial did not overwhelm him.
“Death is going to come to us all someday. It’s just a matter of when and that’s up to God — it’s not up to us,” he said. “All along I just put my faith in God.”
Willing to accept whatever might come, Deacon Leuenberger finally heard some good news. In just two days, both a kidney and liver were available for transplant. Nothing short of “a miracle,” he said.
Two major surgeries later, his body housed a new liver and a new kidney.
HUMBLED, NOT BROKEN
While the successful surgeries were a welcome relief Deacon Leuenberger still faced two and a half months of recovery in the hospital. Over that time the once robust outdoorsman lost more than 120 pounds including most of his muscle. He couldn’t even muster the strength to roll to his side without help from nurses or his wife Annie.
“Annie has been at my side, tirelessly helping me and supporting me through this whole ordeal, never leaving my side,” he said.
But being physically dependent on others was one of the more difficult aspects of falling ill, Deacon Leuenberger admitted.
“It has been very humbling,” he said. “Being as strong and independent as I was before, that was hard, but that’s part of life.”
PARISHIONERS RADIATE CHRIST
Being supported by his family and faith community was an experience Deacon Leuenberger will never forget. He said he felt a strong connection to the mystical Body of Christ through those who reached out.
During his recovery, parishioners extended resources, prayer and camaraderie. Many popped in to visit at the hospital when their flights swung through Seattle. Others paid utility bills and mowed the lawn at the Leuenberger’s Palmer home, and the parish raised funds so Annie could stay at a hotel near the hospital.
“Oh man, the support was overwhelming,” Deacon Leuenberger said. “It’s such a wonderful parish.”
“I have never felt the presence of God in my life more than I have in the past year,” he added. “I knew that God was walking this path with me and by my side through all of this.”
By mid-July his health improved enough to return to Alaska. A parishioner bought the Leuenbergers first class tickets home.
Dozens of parishioners, including the Leuenbergers’ daughter with their eleventh grandchild, converged at the Anchorage International Airport to offer a surprise welcome for their long-suffering deacon.
Pushed in a wheelchair by his wife, Deacon Leuenberger rounded the corner to the main reception area of the airport. There he and his wife recall encountering “one big family” waiving homemade posters, signed by nearly every parishioner.
Long embraces and tears marked the reunion.
“I couldn’t believe that. That was awesome,” Deacon Leuenberger said. “St. Michael’s is definitely the body of Christ.”
WELCOMING BACK ‘A SAINT’
Within a few days, the Leuenbergers drove to St. Michael’s for their first Mass there in many months. Doctors, however, cautioned Deacon Leuenberger against letting people touch him because his immune system was still weak.
“I told the doctors that, being a deacon, that’s going to be real hard,” he recalled with a hearty chuckle. “God’s gotten me through this so far — he’ll take care of what comes ahead.”
So Annie wheeled her husband into the parish.
“People just wanted to touch him and hold him,” she said, and they did.
Not one inclined to make a show or disrupt the liturgy, Deacon Leuenberger admits that returning to St. Michael’s was a “a good distraction” that day, as parishioners clapped and cheered upon his return.
“The feeling was awesome,” he said.
Since then Deacon Leuenberger’s health has steadily improved. He has gained back 50 pounds and resumed his work, both as an electrical engineer and deacon.
A few weeks ago, he delivered his first homily at the parish since returning — a sermon filled with stories of trials and redemption.
“I personally have been praying for the day that he would stand at the ambo and preach for our Sunday services,” Matthew Beck said. “I don’t think there was a dry eye in the entire church.”
Like many parishioners, Beck said he can now “concretely talk about an absolute miracle that I witnessed during my lifetime for years to come.”
“Deacon Curt and Annie’s story and faith are an absolute inspiration,” he said. “I believe Deacon Curt has all of the qualities of a future saint in the Catholic Church.
‘A WONDERFUL LIFE’
A long scar now traverses across Deacon Leuenberger’s entire stomach, a reminder of the roughly 100 staples that held him together following dual surgeries. And just below the skin lie the transplanted organs prolonging his life.
While his strength steadily grows, and even as he plans future hunting trips, Deacon Leuenberger knows that every day is a gift. He is also aware that transplants don’t last forever.
For now, they are “doing great,” he said, but the necessary medications that keep his body from rejecting the organs ultimately weaken them, which means they will only last about a decade. Deacon Leuenberger takes this sober reality in stride.
“I remember early on when I was very sick, telling God ‘If you’re calling me home, so be it, I’m ready to go,’” he said. “God has given me such a wonderful life that if I died today, I would die happy.”
For now he will cherish the time granted.
“I just want to live life to the fullest,” he said. “As best I can.”