Mariannhill society serves missions around the world, around the corner

Mariannhill Missionaries Fr. Vergil Heier, Fr. Thomas Heier and Fr. Tom Szura stand in front of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Dearborn Heights. On Sept. 24, the Mariannhill fathers and brothers celebrated the beatification of Fr. Engelmar Unzeitig, CMM, the first in the order’s history.

Mariannhill Missionaries Fr. Vergil Heier, Fr. Thomas Heier and Fr. Michael Sheehy stand in front of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Dearborn Heights. On Sept. 24, the Mariannhill fathers and brothers celebrated the beatification of Fr. Engelmar Unzeitig, CMM, the first in the order’s history.

Dearborn Heights — For Fr. Vergil Heier, CMM, there isn’t much of a difference between supporting the missions overseas and spreading the Gospel right here at home in the Archdiocese of Detroit. For him, both are part of the same “mission”: Christ’s.

“A parish or diocese isn’t Christian unless they have as much of a concern for people outside their boundaries as they have for themselves,” said Fr. Heier, vocations director for the Mariannhill Mission Society based at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Dearborn Heights. “Being a missionary and supporting missionaries is essential to life as a Catholic. It shows we are connected to the Church, worldwide.”

The seven priests and two brothers who live at the monastery are charged with the task of coordinating and supporting missions to various places around the world, particularly to countries in Africa and the South Pacific.

In addition to organizing and coordinating missions around the world, the Mariannhill fathers and brothers also assist parishes around the area and coordinate outreach programs to the area’s underprivileged.

“We do pastoral work on the weekdays and weekends with three parishes in the area, and we try to get really involved in the community,” said Fr. Thomas Heier, CMM, Fr. Vergil’s brother. “We go back a long time, primarily when all of our missions were overseas, particularly in Africa, which was the attraction for me joining.”

For future Mariannhill Missionaries, however, an added attraction might also include the life of Blessed Fr. Engelmar Unzeitig, CMM, who was beatified as a martyr of the faith by Pope Francis on Sept. 24.

Fr. Unzeitig, a German priest who joined the Missionaries of Mariannhill in 1939, spoke out against the Nazi regime and was arrested and sentenced to Dachau concentration camp for denouncing the persecution of Jews and instructing his congregation that people’s first loyalty was to God and not the state.

“Fr. Engelmar Unzeitig preached the Gospel in a way, complaining about the Nazis, so they put him in prison without a trial,” said Fr. Tom Szura, CMM. “When he was put in a concentration camp, he said they made a mistake. Then he asked, ‘How can I be of service?’ and he did what he could do in the concentration camp, ministering the sacraments to the prisoners and caring for them.”

When typhus broke out in the camp, and SS guards refused to go near the prisoners or enter their barracks, Fr. Unzeitig was one of 20 priests who entered the infected barracks, eventually succumbing to typhoid and dying on March 2, 1945.

Fr. Unzeitig’s case for beatification was opened in July 1991, and he was declared “venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI on July 3, 2009.

Fr. Unzeitig’s beatification is the first in the order’s history, which dates back to 1909. To celebrate, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron presided over a Mass of thanksgiving with the local Mariannhill Missionaries on Sept. 24 at Our Lady of Grace Monastery, the former home of St. Bernard’s Seminary.

After the Mass, the Mariannhill priests and brothers hosted guests at the mission center for a reception to commemorate the life of Blessed Fr. Unzeitig, showing a DVD of his works and reading testimonials from fellow prisoners, as well as offering a chance to showcase what today’s Mariannhill Missionaries do around the world.

“Technology and information is available to a lot of people, but there are still corners of the world that have never heard of Jesus Christ, that have never seen a Catholic priest,” Fr. Szura said. “In Africa, it’s still the first evangelization, whereas here, it’s the re-evangelization. In Africa, there are still people who need that first encounter.”

That’s not to say the “re-evangelization” of the people of the Archdiocese of Detroit is any less important, Fr. Vergil Heier said.

“We who live in the community must do missionary work within our community, within the Archdiocese of Detroit,” Fr. Vergil Heier said. “This year, we decided to learn more about Islam, reaching out the Islamic community. We also do as much as we can for people on the fringes of society, visiting the poor and sick, helping out in any way we can.”

As people are encouraged to answer the call to be missionaries wherever they might be, Fr. Szura said the beatification of Fr. Unzeitig serves as an example and reminder of the sacrifices of being a missionary disciple, and the challenges that lie ahead in a changing world.

“To be a missionary, you have to be ready to suffer for your faith,” Fr. Szura said. “Cardinal Francis (George) of Chicago said in a conference with priests, ‘I’m going to die in bed, my successor might die in prison, and his successor might be put to death.’ That’s what we’re going to stand for; standing up for values that are ever more counter-cultural. And that’s what Fr. Engelmar was forced to do, and we must be prepared to do the same.”


World Mission Sunday

A Mass celebrating World Mission Sunday will take place at 11 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. The Mass, celebrated by Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron and sponsored by the Detroit-based PIME missionaries, will include a reception afterward with displays and information about the many missionary orders represented in the Archdiocese of Detroit.