Father James G. Heller was a well – known priest who served in many different capacities during his 51 years in the Saginaw Diocese. In addition to pastoral and diocesan positions, he was a board member of the Catholic Community Foundation of Mid – Michigan.
“He believed in the philosophy of the Catholic Community Foundation,” said Jeanne Glowicki, Fr. Heller’s niece. “He knew it was a way that people could be served for years to come.”
Fr. Heller died May 7th at St. Anne’s Home in Grand Rapids from complications related to the COVID – 19 virus. He was 78 years old.
His death weighed heavily on the hearts of his surviving family members, including two sisters and one brother, plus three generations of nieces and nephews.
“He had such an impact on all of us,” Jeanne continued. “He was humble, always worried about other people. He saw the good in everyone and he never lost hope.”
Fr. Heller’s death also was a loss for the clergy in the diocese, particularly Fr. William R. Taylor. He delivered the homily at Fr. Heller’s funeral Mass, and then died unexpectedly just weeks later on July 13th. “Father Heller saw the priesthood as a ministry of service,” Fr. Taylor said during the funeral Mass. “He ‘got the word out’ by word and example and left the rest to God’s grace.”
Fr. Heller considered his 19 months at St. Anne’s as a continuation of his life’s work. He told Fr. Taylor, “This is where I am supposed to minister now.”
Fr. Heller was born in Bay City and attended Bay City St. Mary’s Elementary and High Schools. He entered the new St. Paul Seminary in Saginaw in 1960, was transferred to Holy Cross Seminary in LaCrosse, WI and studied theology at the North American College in Rome. He was ordained by Bishop Francis Reh on Dec. 20, 1968 at the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome.
He began his ministry as an Associate Pastor at Holy Rosary Parish in Saginaw in 1969, and then Associate Pastor at SS Peter and Paul Parish in Saginaw from 1970 -1974. He served on the Pastoral Team at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Saginaw from 1974 – 1982 at which time Bishop Kenneth Untener appointed him Director of the Church Ministries Office for the next seven years.
He returned to pastoral service in 1989, serving at St. Philip Neri in Coleman and St. Anne in Edenville parishes. In 1996 he was assigned to his home parish of St. Mary’s in Bay City, where he also served as Vicar of Vicariate VIII. His final pastorate was at St. Stephen’s Parish in Saginaw from 2005 – 2014, when he retired after 45 years of service and became a senior priest.
Parishioners remember him for memorizing the Sunday gospel and reciting it by heart at every Mass. He was fluent in three languages, an avid reader, and lover of all types of music. He appreciated art, good wine, good food and good conversation. Friends commented on his warm, gentle personality, intelligence and authentic smile.
Beyond parish and diocesan responsibilities, Fr. Heller served on various committees and organizations including the Michigan Catholic Conference, Senate of Priests, Diocesan Pastoral Council, Diocesan Finance Council, Regional Vicar, Vicar General and St. Mary’s of Michigan Advisory Board and Ethics Committee. He also was a board member for the Little Books of the Diocese of Saginaw.
Fr. Heller was a long-time Tiger baseball fan. He and Fr. Taylor enjoyed many afternoon games and held season tickets after they retired.
His connection to the Catholic Community Foundation of Mid-Michigan went beyond his service on the board. He was proud of the Gilbert and Adelaide Heller Endowment Fund, a philanthropic charity created by his late parents and managed by the Foundation. Catholic institutions directly benefiting from the Heller Endowment include St. Mary’s, Bay City; St. Stephen Church, Saginaw; Sacred Heart Church, Elk Rapids; Bay Area Catholic Schools and the Saginaw Area Catholic Schools.
Contributions in Fr. Heller’s memory can be made to his parents’ Endowment Fund by accessing the Catholic Community Foundation of Mid-Michigan website: ccfmm.org/donate/ and specifying the Gilbert and Adelaide Heller Endowment Fund in the message/details section of the webpage. Contributions also can be mailed to the Catholic Community Foundation of Mid – Michigan, 5800 Weiss St., Saginaw, MI 48603-2779.