Chicago man says owes his life to his faith
By Smith Village
LeRoy “Lee” Larson is 90 but feels much younger, he insists, because of his belief in the Catholic faith.
Larson was recently awarded a lifetime membership to the Father Perez Knights of Columbus Council 1444 of Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood. The honor marks his 50 years of continued membership in the Catholic service organization.
Larson lives at Smith Village, a continuing care retirement community at 2320 W. 113th Place in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood. It suits him just fine that he doesn’t have to go far to attend regular Catholic mass and communion, which are held here along with Lutheran services, and nondenominational chapel services.
“We’re in close proximity to several robust Catholic parishes,” says Amanda Mauceri, Smith Village associate executive director. “In Smith Village’s area people ask each other what parish they belong to before expecting to know what block or street address they live on. It only makes sense that we offer regular services for our residents.”
In Larson’s two-bedroom Smith Village apartment, a treasured statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary stands three feet tall. Larson has just finished repainting the icon he’s cherished and maintained for several decades. Special touches include a blue beaded rosary and a tiara fashioned from a rhinestone wristband that used to be worn by Larson’s late wife, Annabelle.
The icon is destined to return to the backyard of his home in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood, which Larson sold in 2008 before moving to Smith Village. The property changed hands on the condition that the new owner keep Larson’s grotto.
“This is my thank you to the Virgin Mary for all of the wonderful miracles she’s brought to my life,” he says.
Those miracles, he said, include Annabelle, his children, good friends, job opportunities that enabled him to build a comfortable life, learning to fly, and even defying death while enlisted in the Army Air Corps, known today as the Air Force, during World War II.
As a staff sergeant, Larson serviced on-board weapons and trained B-17 bombardiers and P47 pilots to use them. While in Okinawa, he responded to a fiery P47 crash that occurred on the base where he was stationed. He said a prayer before heading into flames.
“The men were all soaked in jet fuel, stumbling around and burning alive,” Larson said. “None of them lived, but I still managed to get them out. I wasn’t overcome with smoke, and I didn’t get burned. There wasn’t a scratch on me. People who observed my actions said it was a miracle. Maybe that’s because I believe in miracles.”
For this act of bravery Larson received a Soldier’s Medal, awarded for heroism not involving conflict with an enemy. Honor Flight Chicago recognized Larson this spring by inviting him to fly to Washington, D.C., for a day to be honored and to visit the World War II Memorial.
A second personal miracle occurred in Okinawa, according to Larson, who bumped into an old pal from grade school.
“My friend Cy had a photo of this beautiful girl, and I asked him, ‘Say, who’s that? Is that your wife? She’s a knockout.’ He tells me, ‘That’s Sis.’ I couldn’t believe it! My old playmate, Annabelle. I decided right then and there I was going to marry her.”
For several months, Larson wrote letters to Annabelle Lee.
“She welcomed me with open arms when I arrived home from the war,” he says.
Every Sunday for more than a year, he visited her and her mother for dinner. When the couple decided to marry, Annabelle insisted that Larson convert from the Lutheran faith to Catholicism. He offered no resistance and embraced the faith as few people do, regularly attending church, saying novenas, joining the Holy Name Society as well as the Knights of Columbus, and even building the special thank-you shrine in his backyard and having it blessed by several priests.
Larson considered his wife of 56 years “his greatest blessing.” She encouraged him to attend night school on the G.I. Bill and earn an associate’s degree in industrial safety and engineering from Chicago Vocational School. This qualified him for a 30-year career with ComEd as an outof- service coordinator for the generating stations.
Larson said both his wife and his faith brought about the special miracle of his adopted children, Gerald and Mary Ann.
“The Church insisted we had to have a room for the children, that we had to have a bed for each child, everything. Man, were they fussy,” Lee jokes. “At first it seemed the priest wasn’t going to let us adopt. That made my wife cry. I got really mad. I said to him, ‘Nobody makes my wife cry. Can’t you see how much this means to her?’”
Maybe the priest was impressed by Larson’s devotion to Annabelle, or maybe it was just another miracle. Either way, Larson ended up with what he describes as, “the most beautiful family anyone could ever want,” which includes seven grandchildren and two great- grandchildren.