Optimism helps pastor serve until 93rd birthday

Deacon Bob Cowie presents a plaque Feb. 4 to Father Harold Heiman for his contributions to St. Anthony Church in Ratcliff since 1982.
Deacon Bob Cowie presents a plaque Feb. 4 to Father Harold Heiman for his contributions to St. Anthony Church in Ratcliff since 1982.

Longevity seems to be the cornerstone of Father Harold Heiman’s ministry in Arkansas.
He has dedicated 72 years as a monk and 67 years as a priest of Subiaco Abbey.
He spent 52 consecutive years as a high school teacher, specializing in Spanish and Latin.
He served 26 years as a chaplain for the local Knights of Columbus council.
Another milestone few priests ever reach is serving at one parish for 24 years. Since 1982 Father Heiman commuted 16 miles west to St. Anthony Church in Ratcliff each week. Even into his 90s he would travel to Ratcliff to celebrate Mass.
On his 93rd birthday in December, he decided to retire as a parish priest because it became more difficult to stand during Mass and read the sacramentary texts.
“My eyes are as old as the rest of me,” he was quoted as saying.
Until his retirement, he was the oldest pastor in the diocese and the longest-serving pastor in one parish.
Deacon Bob Cowie has been appointed pastoral administrator at St. Anthony and Father Donald Tranel of Booneville will handle the sacramental needs.
Even if Father Heiman is getting physically weaker, his mind is still sharp, Cowie said.
“When the kids would come up (at the end of Mass) to get the children’s bulletin, he would know each of them by name. I don’t think I could do it,” he said.
His contribution “is immeasurable. All of the young people have been baptized by him,” Cowie said.
Father Heiman was born in 1913 to German parents in St. Bernard, Neb., but grew up with his family on a farm in Nazareth, Texas. He attended Subiaco Academy for high school where he met the Benedictine monks.
“I think my family as long as I can remember said, ’He is going to be a priest,’” he said during an interview with Arkansas Catholic.
He graduated from high school in 1932 and two years later he made his profession as a monk. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1939.
In 1940, he began his ministry as a Spanish and Latin teacher at Subiaco as well as other high schools in Corpus Christi and Fort Worth, Texas. For the next 52 years he was in the classroom teaching, another milestone no other monk at Subiaco Abbey has reached.
In addition to teaching, he was an athletic director and assistant coach.
As varied as his teaching assignments, Father Heiman was also busy doing other activities requested by the abbot and undertaking several hobbies. Over the years he became known for his involvement in Marriage Encounter weekends.
“We are not surprised that many see in him their spiritual father,” said Father Richard Walz, OSB, said.
His hobbies have included making stained-glass windows, woodworking, landscaping and golf. He was praised by Bishop Emeritus Andrew J. McDonald, who also appreciated golfing, for planting 200 trees on the nearby Little Creek Golf Course.
His stained-glass windows grace the monks’ dining room and the chapel at the Arkansas Heart Hospital in Little Rock.
In 1982 he was assigned to be the “commuter” pastor for the mission in Ratcliff while he continued to teach. In 1991, at the age of 78, he retired from teaching.
Retiring in early February was not something Father Heiman wanted to do.
“I sure hated to give it up,” he said. “I loved it so much. The people … were so easy to lead and they were so enthusiastic.”
Cowie calls the former pastor the “Energizer Bunny” for his perpetual work.
“He would always say, ’I feel great’ and then he would turn to me and say, ’Get me a chair, Bob. I need to sit down,’” the deacon said.
Parishioners say Father Heiman made himself part of the local community and a part of their family. Ruth Freeman said she was touched by the priest when he would visit her father-in-law, Iluf Freeman, when he was suffering with cancer in the 1990s.
“One day I noted that Father had tears in his eyes, and he simply reminded me that not only was he their priest but their friend as well,” Freeman said. “As Iluf’s friend, Father said it was hard to see him so sick. I was struggling with why him, the fear of losing him. I heard Father one day say a prayer with Iluf, and at the conclusion say ’Lord help me with my unbelief.’
“As a priest he knew his obligations, as a friend he too had times of uncertainty. Father Harold’s, honesty and acceptance of others has always been a model for me.”
Parishioner Pat Stengel said Father Heiman had an impact on her four sons, especially Josh, who is studying for the priesthood.
“Father Harold taught them weekly during Mass and through his homilies,” she said.
He also led by example, even when working with one of the boys on a repair project at the parish, Stengel said.
“I positively believe it was in this one-on-one interaction with Father Harold that they saw faith exemplified in the everyday tasks of life. St. Benedict would be very proud,” she said.
Six years ago, health programs challenged the priest, but he continued to have a positive attitude. Surgeries on his left and right shoulder and right knee limited his mobility.
“I have had 18 surgeries and I was never sick. That’s the truth,” he said.
His eyesight also started to fail, and he was forced to use a magnifying glass to read the Mass texts.
“He can see the silver lining behind any cloud because he expects it,” Father Walz said. “Even though he has been unable to play golf or to see well enough to pursue his stained glass and woodcrafts, his inevitable answer to the question ’How are you doing?’ is ’I never had it so good.’”
Father Heiman attributes his optimism to “being satisfied.”
“I believe Jesus talked to me through the abbot. I firmly believe in that,” he said.
Before his official retirement, Father Heiman was honored by Subiaco Academy by establishing the Father Harold Heiman Scholarship Fund. The fund will support students who have a financial need and are from the areas where he served as a teacher and pastor.
Living in the abbey’s health center and confined to a wheelchair, Father Heiman said he would spend time in prayer with the other monks.
“I am going to keep on going. Right now I feel pretty good. Maybe I’ll start a new church,” he said with a laugh.

Malea Hargett

Malea Hargett has guided the diocesan newspaper as editor since 1994. She finds strength in her faith through attending Walking with Purpose Bible studies at Christ the King Church in Little Rock.

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