By Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Br. Leonard, a missionary brother with the Oblate Apostles of the Two Hearts, spent much of his childhood drawing.
“I loved to draw cartoon characters especially,” he said. “Batman, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But, one day, my mother looked over my shoulder and said, ‘Why can’t you draw something more holy?’”
He laughed and added, “Then I realized: She’s right. They do look sort of angry.”
That was when he began drawing a different sort of champion: archangels in comic book hero style. In years to come, his after-school hobby would develop into a calling: to draw kids like himself into learning more about their Catholic faith through comics and graphic novels.
“It’s been my goal to evangelize through art—to create books with a strong visual element that will appeal to kids.”
Born in California and named Samuel Estrada, the oldest son of Glenn and Tes Estrada, Br. Leonard moved to Virginia Beach in 2000. There, he attended the Old Donation School for the Gifted and Talented where he studied art, before graduating from Kellam High School in 2007.
After graduation, he participated in an Oblate Apostles of the Two Hearts discernment weekend in Dover, Delaware. The order, started around 1990, has already gone through the first stages (private association, public association) and currently undergoing ecclesiastical recognition in the Philippines.
“When I was there I thought, ‘Wow, this is a lot of praying. This is what I am going to be doing for the rest of my life.’” He resolved to leave art behind.
Later in the weekend, however, he learned that the Order had a Media Apostolate, a branch devoted to evangelization through the media. It was a match made in heaven. “I had thought I would lose all my talents, but then surprisingly, I was able to use them after all.”
During his first assignment at the mother house in the Philippines, Br. Leonard completed a graphic novel telling the story of San Pedro Calungsod, a 17th century missionary. When local schools invited the Oblate Apostles to hold a Values Formation retreat, the Order printed the novel and distributed it to the students.
In 2012, Br. Leonard was assigned to Christ the King Monastery in Cullman, Alabama, where he began working on coloring pages and craft projects for summer camps the Order holds there and in South Sioux City, Nebraska.
His first fans, however, are a little closer to home. As the eldest of seven children, Br. Leonard has a built-in test audience in his younger brothers and sisters.
“Anyone can learn from his artwork,” said younger brother, John Paul. “He makes his artwork fun and cartoonish while still making it educational.”
Br. Leonard’s most recent projects include a graphic novel about Our Lady of Fatima and, in a more serious style, a children’s guide to the Tridentine Mass.
“If I could send any message to those discerning,” Br. Leonard said, “I would tell them, ‘Don’t feel you have to put away your dreams.’ God will enhance your talents and use them in ways you might not have imagined.”