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Jubilarian Profile: Capistran Heim Marks 50 Years as Friar

This is the 11th in a series of profiles about HNP friars commemorating anniversaries of Franciscan profession in 2010. The last issue of  HNP Today featured Fintan Duffy, OFM.

NEW YORK — As a 30-year-old cleric, Capistran Heim, OFM, thought he was going to Brazil for three years, but he liked the assignment so much he stayed a little longer — 46 years.

In fact, he is one of Holy Name’s few friars who have spent an entire career in missionary work abroad, going to Brazil in 1964 to finish his theology courses and later serving rural churches. For the past 22 years, Capistran has been the bishop of the Prelacy (a mission diocese) of Itaituba, Brazil.

At almost 77 years old, he said he wrote to the pope 18 months ago to place his position as bishop at the Holy Father’s disposal. He laughs as he described the letter he got back from Rome. In essence, it said: “To be acted upon when they can.”

“I think it’s probably time to retire. You can only do so much,” he said recently.

Capistran initially went to Petropolis, Brazil, for his last two years of study after St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., Rye Beach, N.H., and Washington, D.C. At the time, he said, friars never studied outside Province’s internal schools. But provinces were beginning to send clerics to study in Brazil, and Holy Name wanted to send three. “We had two weeks to decide if we wanted to go, and we were told the commitment would be for three years.” So Capistran and two others, including Gerald Mudd, OFM, went.

“It was a very wise decision,” he recalled. And one that transformed his life. 

Capistran didn’t always want to be a priest. His early career goal was to be a veterinarian. Growing up in rural Upstate New York, he was fond of horses and interested in the work of a family friend, who was a vet. “I was captivated by that,” said Capistran, who was in New York City at the Provincial Office recently for this interview, before going Upstate to visit his sister.

After returning home from the Korean War, he set out on his vet course by studying biology at Siena College, outside Albany, N.Y., where he was introduced to the Holy Name friars. “It clicked after a vocation talk,” he recalled, and he soon considered life as a Franciscan.

His first assignment in Brazil was as an assistant to Paul Osborne, OFM, and then Robert Nee, OFM, pastors at Sao Miguel do Araguaia parish. When Paul became ill, Capistran became the substitute pastor and Charles Miller, OFM, came to work with him.

Known for Administration 
At the time, he also served on a Province team that was helping facilitate the outcome of the Vatican II Council. Known for his organizational and administrative skills, in 1970 Capistran was named executive secretary of the Custos — a role he filled for six years.

From 1976 to 1978, he directed Radio Sao Francisco, the Catholic station in Anapolis on the air 24/7. “It was like competition to National Public Radio,” Capistran said, not recalling the job with any affection. “I didn’t like it.”

Intense competition between stations, disgruntled DJs, and mounting financial problems made the job difficult, he said, adding “I was delighted when they decided to transfer me.”

It was back to parish ministry for Capistran, who was then assigned to pastor Our Lady Mother of God Church in Catalao, Goias. The ministry, with approximately 20 chapels in the rural countryside, kept him on the go. “It was busy, but always enjoyable.”

Much of his work over the years had been driving Jeeps on treacherous back roads to get to country chapels. So when the opportunity came in 1985 to study for a year in Jerusalem, he jumped at it. “I needed to recharge my batteries.”

Back in Quirinopolis the next year, he was assigned to Our Lady of the Abby, a parish with 20 or 30 chapels spanning 40 miles, he recalled, spending his days traveling from church to church to say Mass, hear confessions, do baptisms and marriages. “Whatever day you were there was like a Sunday for the people.” Each church, he said, would only have about eight Masses a year.

“I liked what I was doing and made a lot of friends,” Capistran said.

Bishop Appointment in 1988
These friendships and effective working relationships were instrumental in his assignment as bishop in 1988. The prelacy is in northern Brazil, where he is the spiritual leader to 14 priests serving five rural parishes and three pastoral zones in an area larger than the state of New York.

While he looks forward to retirement, Capistran said he doesn’t know when that will be. He relishes the thought of having time to read the materials he wants to read, and not just the scholarly journals, magazines and articles that he must read as bishop.

He does manage to find time to advance his hobby of being a master chef, and will often cook Sunday dinner for his fellow friars. “It’s very relaxing. I celebrate two Masses, then get into my kitchen.”

He has enjoyed being part of the Province, and is grateful for the opportunity to have spent his life in mission work.

“There was never any question about my work,” he said. Before finishing the interview, he expressed a need for missionaries, and urged more young friars to consider assignments abroad.

There is always a need for money, too, in Brazil, he said. While visiting in New York State, he is speaking at local Catholic churches, appealing for donations to HNP missions. “Just to fix our Jeeps that roll over on the horrible roads can cost between $4,000 and $5,000 each.”

The bills stop on Bishop Capistan’s desk.

— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNP Today. Upcoming newsletter issues will feature Joseph Hertel, OFM, and Richard Husted, OFM.