RIP Leo Cornelius Nestor (1948 – 2019)

Pray Tell has received word from Dr. Kevin O’Brien that composer and teacher Leo Nestor died in the early hours of the morning today, Sunday, September 22nd, 2019. 

Nestor’s body weakened in recent days, but his mind never lost any of its famous acuity. On Friday he was anointed and received Communion. He spoke of the joy he had known in composing and conducting for the church and in teaching. He spoke of wanting forgiveness from anyone he had wronged. He was at his peace. “I have my faith. I have my hope,” are among the last things he said.

Nestor earned his BA in music from California State University, East Bay, and his masters and DMA in choral conducting from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. He was among the four founding members of the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians in 1984. From 1984 to 2001 he was music director at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. He was the Justine Bayard Ward professor of music and director of choral studies at the Catholic University of America from 2001 to 2016. His extensive choral and congregational compositions for the liturgy were published by many publishers. Four times he was commissioned to write works for pastoral visits of popes to the United States – for John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. In 2016 he received knighthood in the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory from Pope Francis for his service to the church.

He is survived by his elder sister, Connie, and her two children. He had asked that in lieu of flowers he wished donations to be made to the Little Sisters of the Poor, who cared for Leo and Connie’s sister, Patricia, in her final months.

A tribute concert for the deceased had already been in the works for early in 2020 at Saint Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill. Further arrangements are pending.

May he rest in peace.


  1. He was a brilliant musician who showed the Roman Church just what might be done with a good director and some talented singers. His compositions were impressive to say the least. I hope that his work for the National Shrine is an inspiration to all who minister through music in the Catholic Church. Requiem aeteranm.

  2. Leo was an amazing man. We met socially shortly after I moved to DC in 1999. Our friendship blossomed when I assigned to the Basilica in DC, where he was director of sacred music.

    He gave the Angels their voice in that sacred space, and elevated every worship service to a profound sense of the Divine. The voices he directed made you feel the Holy Spirit move so deeply through you that the experience restored health to your soul, and joy to your heart.

    He taught me about Palistrina, and was always available with his rapier like wit, and to have a cup of coffee with.

    Heaven hasn’t just gained a voice in the Choir of Angels today, it has a new Choir Master- and it is surely pleasing to Christ and his Most Blessed Mother.

    Rest in Peace Leo, my heart cannot find the ability to sing tonight… So I pray in lamentation and thanks for your friendship, guidance, and gifts to the world.

  3. I first met Leo at Saint John’s the summer he and Richard Proulx were both teaching on campus. Richard and Leo were having lunch in the refectory, and I walked by. Richard asked if I had met Leo before, I said no, and Richard introduced the two of us to each other. Leo said “You should take my class this afternoon.” I said, “Dr. Nestor, I’d be honored to sit in on your class.” He said, “No I mean TAKE my class so I can get off campus.” His wit could be both playful and biting. As I mentioned on the Facebook comments, when Leo wrote to you, you needed a dictionary. When you wrote to Leo, you needed a thesaurus. We at GIA were privileged to have published some of his pieces and he drove us to fits in the very best way! He took exceptional pride in his manuscripts, believing the singers’ interaction with the engraving itself was a constitutive element of the music making experience. Incredible attention was played to the placement of each note, marking or musical symbol. When an English or Italian expression wouldn’t suffice, he’d use a French one. Like so many fine composers, he first composed out of necessity, mainly for his work at the National Shrine. I hope the caretakers and executors of his estate will offer his music to a wide variety of publishers.

    1. In the late 1970s through the early ‘80s Leo served with distinction as a music director for Sunday mornings at my home parish, Corpus Christi, in Pacific Palisades, California. My dear companions and I directed the Sunday evening liturgy, the 5:30 Mass, a very memorable and quite remarkable time for the parish. Far beyond what any of us could’ve imagined.
      And, in the background, in small ways and big ways, Leo was always a quiet and supportive presence for us.
      It is so gratifying for us to know that his vocation only deepened and grew to touch so many others during his lifetime.
      What’s more, Leo’s gift for irony, one -liners and other fun stuff? Sans pareil!

    2. Michael: to your point exactly – Leo Nestor’s compositions do not leave room for unnecessary interpretation. He provides us singers, instrumentalists, organists and conductors with everything we need to make the piece sound exactly as he intends. Examine any of his published works and we will see how he must have labored over that composition ad nauseam. He was a gift to the post-vatican II church in the United States and his legacy will endure for decades to come.

  4. Dr. Gerald F. Muller, DMA; it is with great sorrow that I have learned of Leo’s death. May the angels ring his music through the ages. No one loved the Liturgy of the Church any more or would become so impassioned if any liturgy was less than perfect. I had great affection for Leo and will miss his presence. May he rest in Peace.

  5. Dr. Nestor is a gentleman and a scholar. I say IS and not the past tense WAS because he has transitioned from this time to eternity; very much alive in the Lord. There are two of his compositions that truly touch my soul: WHO IS SHE ASCENDS SO HIGH and MAGNIFICAT. We use his MAGNIFICAT very frequently at my parish. I am so blessed that I was alive to admire him. “Dr. Nestor; REST ! “

  6. I met Leo at St Emigdius Church in Lynwood Ca. There he was the director of the Maranatha choir, this was before he went to Washington, D.C.
    He was Leo the professional and energetic person who worked in great cooperation with Fr Javier and all of us.
    God will look after him.

  7. Leo was a dear friend and colleague, and one of the most brilliant musicians I have ever known. Thank you, Leo, for giving us a glimpse of heaven through your gift of music.

  8. Rest In Peace Dr. Nestor….your legacy will live on through the many students whose musical souls you touched and inspired. Thank you for inspiring me.

  9. Leo was in the class ahead of me at St. Anthony’s Seminary in California. He learned to play the organ as a freshman, and continued to play it in the chapel there for his 4 years of high school. Even tho the chapel is made of reinforced concrete, his talented fingers made that chapel resonate with an amazing sound, manually pulling out the stops as his feet worked the pedals. I am so happy that he went on to use his talent to touch so many lives!! Rest in the Peace of Jesus, my dear friend.

  10. A Letter to Leo
    (in memory of Leo Nestor, 1948 — 2019)

    The last time I saw you, Leo, was June 13, 1970. The day of my wedding. Perhaps word had gotten out that the Mission San Luis Rey organist was reluctant to play the music we had chosen. In the crazy, busy last minutes before the ceremony someone ran up to me. “Leo’s here!”

    Walking out to the parking lot I was confused. We had never been close during our six years together at the seminary. You weren’t on the guest list. Yet, out of the blue, you arrived with an angel – voiced soprano and a young cellist in tow and said: “We’re here. What would you like us to play?”

    After the ceremony, a ceremony filled with the beautiful music that was your gift to us, you were gone. Gone before we could thank you. Gone before we could invite you to the reception. Gone. We young newlyweds could only look at each other and say: “Wow! That was beautiful.”

    Now, fifty years later, we remember and are still touched by your generosity and loving spirit. So today I will say what I have wanted to say to you for all these fifty years. I say it in full confidence that you will hear.

    Thank you, Leo.

    George (and Patricia) Stenger

    1. George-May I ask you to contact me in good time? I had been collecting materials for a biography of Leo. Though I have most of the details from Leo on those early years, I have very few firsthand testimonials. I’d love to talk with you.

      Kevin O’Brien

  11. When I was at St. Anthony’s Seminary with Leo in the mid 1960’s, he was just beginning to experiment with composing his own music. On October 4th each year, the feast of Saint Francis, we all sang a hymn that Leo had composed. Substitute Leo’s name for Francis’s and it is so appropriate:

    “O Holy Francis, at whose passing the citizens of Heaven rush to assemble. The choir of Angels rejoices! The Blessed Trinity beckons to you and says, ‘Abide with us forever!’ ”

    “O Holy Leo…”

    1. Dennis-Leo loved that text, but no longer had a copy of that hymn written all those years ago. By any chance do you still have it?

      I’d love to talk with you some time about the Saint Anthony years. I’m in touch with Fr. Warren, but no classmates.

      Kevin O’Brien

  12. Mr Leo you were an amazing man. I have only known you for the past couple of years since you retired. You loved your family dearly. I always loved hearing about the stories of your family. You were always so cheerful and happy, even to the end. You were so happy and loved your home that you retired at. You loved Christmas and the different holidays. I remember the sparkle in your eye when we put up your Christmas tree last year. Rest In Peace Mr Leo. You will always be in my heart.

  13. Sorry, but I lost it reading only the 1st line of the article.
    I remember processing back in to the sacristy at the Shrine and after the customary bow to the cross and celebrant, Leo shouting to Sr. Lucyna, ‘Sister, how about some quality control, my Jesus was stale!”

    I understand this may not get published, but to the editors, you got a good laugh from a man who wasn’t irreverent, but a perfectionist in every way, all the way down to the sacred Host.

  14. Señor Leo,

    I was 3 years below Leo at St. Anthony Seminary in Santa Bárbara and appreciated from the start how not only amazingly gifted he was but what a beautiful heart and soul he had. He was a witty and brilliant big brother who once snuck my classmate and I off seminary grounds, lying on the back floor of his old car to get a pizza late one Sunday evening. If caught we would have been burned at the stake! I will never forget how the 3 of us brothers sat on a park bench that night enjoying the Petroni pizza while sharing stories and adventures. He snuck us back just in time for evening prayers!

    Rest In Peace, Bother Leo.

    PÉREZ (SAS ‘69)

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