Faith: St. Leo’s Catholic Church of Hartford


If you have never been through the small town of Hartford, please go if you have the chance.  The history of one of South Sebastian’s diamonds lies in every building when it comes to remembering the past and its importance to our county.  Travel down Highway 96 west toward the Oklahoma border and you’ll find the sweetest little treasure: St. Leo’s Catholic Church

It was in the spring of 1901 when the people of Hartford had a dream come true. Contributions made from other Parishioners, donations from interested parties, free labor and assistance from Coal Mining Companies, the Saint Leo’s Catholic Church came into being.

The late Father Augustine P. Callagher, priest of St. Agnes of Mena, AR was the boss. He took care of St. Agnes, St. Leo’s and also St. Phillips of Huntington. Records from 1901 through 1926 have been lost, but in the fall of 1926, a Father Michael Norton, Chaplain of St. Edward Mercy Hospital of Fort Smith (Mercy Hospital today), held Sunday mass until September 1946 when Father Joseph E. Milam took charge.

Money was scarce and people had moved away. Some had died and membership was almost zero. However, with strong dedication and prayers, Father Milam managed to redecorate the building. It was not a small effort, but “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” When the redecoration was complete, including stained glass windows and pews donated by the late B. A. McConnell from his funeral home in Greenwood, the little House of the Lord was much to be admired.

Father Milam was replaced by Father Louis J. Smith, Dean of Boys at St. Anne’s High School in Fort Smith. He was later replaced by Father Guy Baltz, who was replaced by a flying priest, Father John Riddell.

One could never be sure where Father Riddell could be found. In one of his many letters, he wrote from Jerusalem, the Holy Lands, and Vatican City where he served as Secretary of State of the Vatican City under Pope Paul. He traveled to Central Africa and reluctantly left. 

It has been said that the St. Leo’s Church is the oldest Mission in Arkansas. This landmark was built on a 100 year lease that will ran out in 2001 (they are still open and holding services there in 2019). 

In 1918, Hartford’s population was 5, 000. Of that number, 300 were Catholics. While the population of the town and the Catholic families have greatly declined, St. Leo’s Catholic Church still stands and serves all in need in south Sebastian County.

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