William George Heidt, OSB
June 8, 1913 - March 28, 2000
June 8, 1913 - March 28, 2000
George Heidt, the youngest of the four sons and three daughters of Peter and Magdalene (Moreth) Heidt, was born on his parents' farm near Lost Lake, Wisconsin, a place some 50 miles west of Milwaukee and small enough to be lost on the American Automobile Association's map of that state. In his brief autobiography written during his novitiate year, George describes the farm land of the area as "rough, hilly, sandy, stony" with just enough prospects for material living but not for spiritual living. A mission church provided only a bimonthly Low Mass. On occasion the parents would rise very early, hurry through the chores, catch a local train to the town of South Beaver Dam 20 miles away, and walk another three miles to attend the 10:30 Mass in that place. On one such trip they heard of a nearby quarter section of excellent land for sale. The purchase of and move to this farm were the answer to the prayers of the mother whose faith, courage, and hard work witnessed to a perseverance which her son compared to that of Monica.
The youngest members of the family were now able to complete their primary education in a parochial school. The three daughters eventually became members of the Congregation of St. Agnes. Shortly before the death of George's oldest sister due to an intestinal disorder she said to her youngest brother, "George, be a good boy, always be good. Have you ever thought what you're going to be?" Two years later George decided what he wanted to be and entered St. Lawrence Minor Seminary in Milwaukee. Only then did his mother tell him how earnestly her oldest daughter had desired that he become a priest. In his biographical essay he asks, "Can I then be wrong in my conviction that it was she who by the price of life had bought both my vocation to the priesthood and the grace and strength to persevere this far to that goal?"
After completing a year at the St. Paul Seminary, George came to Collegeville in 1936 and asked to be admitted into the novitiate of St. John's Abbey. His request was granted, he received the monastic name of William, and a year later, on September 14, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, he made his first commitment to the Benedictine way of life. He completed his seminary studies and was ordained in 1940. He then began graduate studies at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., earning the Licentiate in Oriental Languages and the Doctorate in Sacred Theology with a concentration on Sacred Scripture. He did supplementary studies in biblical languages at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
In 1945 Father William began teaching biblical Greek, Hebrew and Sacred Scripture. In those pre-Vatican II days St. John's Seminary was filled to capacity with diocesan and monastic candidates for the priesthood. First through fourth-year seminarians numbered more than 100, and Father William informed, inspired and entertained them all at once with his biblical lectures in one of the largest classrooms on campus. He made the Sacred Scriptures come alive with periodic playful dramatizations of key events, all the while nervously mangling a handkerchief. He weekly quizzed the standing-room-only class on memorized texts of the Bible, and he was the only theology teacher in those days to assign genuine term papers. It will never be known if he actually read the 24-page composite essay put together by a team of two dozen students who directed participants in this prank to start their page with a noun, end it with a verb and have no less than five footnotes per page. Footnotes, after all, were the sure sign of scholarship, and Father William was indeed a scholar.
His scholarship as well as his leadership became apparent in 1950 when he was appointed the Director of The Liturgical Press, the abbey's publishing house. For the next 28 years Father William focused and shaped the work of The Press. The printers who worked with him on innumerable publishing projects called him a "marketing genius." He knew exactly what pastors and teachers needed to help the people in the pews read and understand the Bible and actively participate in public worship. One of his first publishing successes was the translation of a trilogy of texts by the German Scripture scholar, Dr. Paul Heinisch, namely, The History of the Old Testament, The Theology of the Old Testament, and Christ in Prophecy. He also translated The Church's Year of Grace by Dr. Pius Parsch, the illustrious Austrian Augustinian priest and popularizer of liturgical prayer and thought. This 2000-page, five-volume work, recognized as the one publication that most prepared for and influenced the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Liturgy, was an awesome source of historical, doctrinal and meditative readings on all aspects of the Church Year as seen in the missal, breviary, ritual and martyrology. Sales of this series alone reached a high of 80,000 books annually–in spite of its never appearing on a best seller list.
It would take a catalog to give Father William complete credit for his wisdom, creativity and pastoral sensitivity in publishing and promoting a plethora of practical works such as the following: the 46 booklets of the Old and New Testament Reading Guides, the periodical The Bible Today, the Looseleaf Lectionary, Celebrating the Eucharist (a guide for participating in the Mass), the Bible and Liturgy Sunday Bulletin, the Book of Prayer, and the hymn book Our Parish Prays and Sings. Most of these titles became and still remain the mainstay of the ministry of The Liturgical Press and a perennial testimony to Father William's boundless energy. Those who worked with him and for him often wondered when or if he ever slept. He usually ate on the run. Editors and shipping room personnel came to expect that no matter how late they left work or how early they arrived at The Press, their Director would have another project on their desks or more orders to be filled and shipped. During the summer months he would stuff a station wagon with projects and head for Mercer, Wisconsin, where he took care of the local parish.
Although the Second Vatican Council gave him and The Liturgical Press new direction and impetus in matters biblical and liturgical, Father William did not subscribe to every facet of the Church's updating. His initial creativity began to be seasoned with occasional criticism. He could not accept some of the new approaches in biblical interpretation (for example, the literary form of midrash in some New Testament material) which his seminary students had read about and challenged him on. He was less than enthusiastic about certain liturgical changes introduced after the Council. After his years of outstanding leadership and productivity Father William left The Press and the Collegeville classroom. From 1978-96 he held the position of professor of Sacred Scripture at Holy Apostles Seminary, Cromwell, Connecticut.
During the final four years of his retirement at St. John's he lived in a room conspicuously empty of the scholarly volumes that once lined his monastery quarters. There he lived out the final phase of his monastic profession which had begun for him on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. He waited quietly and patiently for the coming of the One whose words he had faithfully taught and published, the One whose final words to him were simply, "Follow me...to glory!"
Father William was preceded in death by his three sisters and three brothers.
The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated for Father William at Saint John's Abbey on Friday, March 31st, with burial in the abbey cemetery.