It was five years ago Heidemann attended a Cursillo weekend where he had the opportunity to more personally explore his faith and spirituality. “It made me realize how much I didn’t know about my faith and that something was missing,” he said.
Already participating in the deaf ministry for the diocese, Heidemann began to research how he could continue his faith education. That’s when he learned of the Ministry Formation Program for Catholic Deaf Adults sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago. It’s the only program for deaf people which offers a pastoral skill program taught either by deaf people or hearing people skilled in sign language and knowledgeable in deaf culture. Heidemann is a proficient lip reader, although he said as he has gotten older he relies more and more on sign language.
Three weekends in fall and three weekends in spring these past four years Heidemann traveled to the school north of Chicago. He applied for and was recipient of a scholarship from the Diocese of Green Bay for his education.
It was Sacred Heart Fr. Guy Blair, director of deaf ministry for the Diocese of Green Bay and pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Green Bay, who recommended Heidemann pursue the Ministry Formation Program.
Deaf ministry has flourished at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Green Bay, but in fall will be moved to St. Paul Parish in Combined Locks when Fr. Blair is transferred there. The planned move came as a disappointment to the deaf community and hearing parishioners at St. John the Evangelist as well. “We blended with the hearing people here and we became a family,” said Heidemann.
Deaf and hard of hearing persons have come to know St. John the Evangelist Parish for its regular Masses tailored specifically to their needs on the first, second and fourth Sundays of the month at 8:30 a.m. A deaf choir is an important part of those Masses. On the third Sunday of the month, the 10:30 a.m. Mass features signing and brings the deaf and hearing communities together.
Heidemann, who also works part-time for Feld Properties, is busy with various facets of the deaf ministry, including assisting in planning for the Masses, setting up retreats, Bible studies and social events. The deaf ministry also has an outreach into nursing homes. He said he thinks of himself as “a bridge” between the deaf community and hearing persons. He is the only deaf person in his family and first learned sign language when he attended Southwest High School.
“He is very humble,” said Fr. Blair, explaining what a good role model he is to others. He sees in Heidemann “a real need to come closer to God” as he serves the spiritual needs of the deaf community. “Joe is also not afraid to ask questions and speak up for his rights,” Fr. Blair continued.
“‘Why does it have to be that way?'” is a question Heidemann asks, he said.
“I know he will be very proud and happy,” said Fr. Blair of Heidemann’s commissioning to ministry. “Four years of studying. Imagine that a deaf person has to travel to Chicago for a program where people here just travel locally to pick up their skills.”
He has done much to make many things “culturally deaf,” said Fr. Blair. Heidemann has recognized that the deaf community can’t always copy the hearing experience, especially when it comes to celebrating their faith. Simple recommendations such as changing the placement of candles near the altar during Mass, for example, have meant that more people can see the sign language. “Joe works to empower the deaf community and that’s not an easy job,” said Fr. Blair.
At the commissioning Mass May 20, Heidemann will be joined by his wife of two years, Marie. She is also deaf and works in the Hand-N-Hand program for children, infant through age 5, located at St. John the Evangelist Church. He and Marie met after her parents decided to move back from California to her father’s native Wisconsin after his retirement. Also in attendance will be his parents, Ann and Charlie. Heidemann also has two siblings, Jim and Lori.
“Sharing cultures” is something Heidemann said he enjoys doing as part of the deaf ministry. He has a lot of pride in what has been accomplished the past several years at St. John the Evangelist Parish, bridging the worlds of the deaf community and the hearing world.
It’s a disappointment, he said, that the deaf ministry will be relocated from its long-time base, but Heidemann said he recognizes he will play an important role in the transition when Fr. Blair begins his new assignment Sept. 15 at St. Paul Parish in Combined Locks.