During his three-plus years as auxiliary bishop, Bishop Donald Hying was a frequent presence at young adult events, retreats and conferences, and established himself as a warm and approachable figure with an unshakable devotion to pastoral care. The impression he has left on thousands of young adults in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is undeniable.
Bishop Hying will also leave a legacy of vocations in Milwaukee, as he spent six years serving students at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, first as dean of formation in 2005 and then as rector from 2007 to 2011.
“He connected first and foremost (with us) because he was an incredible priest that loved us, and we loved him,” said Fr. Matthew Widder, a seminarian during Bishop Hying’s time as rector, now administrator at St. Clement and Holy Name of Jesus parishes, Sheboygan. “He would say, ‘You will make mistakes as priests, and you will make bad decisions. But as long as you love the people and they know that you love them, it will be OK.’”
A kid at heart
Seminarians who studied under Bishop Hying during his tenure at Saint Francis will remember their rector as a willing – often eager – participant in many a well-meaning dormitory prank.
“He allowed us to have fun, and often at his expense,” said Fr. Charles Wrobel, ordained in 2010, now associate pastor at St. Paul Parish, Genesee Depot, and St. Bruno Parish, Dousman.
Fr. Wrobel said Bishop Hying as a rector was always a good sport about the hijinks of his students – even when several seminarians snuck into Bishop Hying’s bathroom and installed a deer head above his toilet.
Fr. Wrobel still cherishes a keepsake from his years at the seminary: a “Fr. Don Hying Fan Club” T-shirt created by some mischief-minded seminarians to tease Bishop Hying as he delivered an address to the students.
“He’d do these rector conferences on Sunday night, and we would have evening prayer,” said Fr. Widder, a classmate of Fr. Wrobel’s. “We had it planned that we would all be wearing sweaters, and when he walked up to do his talk, everyone took their sweater off, and we all had this T-shirt with a big picture of him on it. I think it said something like ‘Fr. Don: putting the smackdown on heresy’ on it.”
“There was something in the Mass readings that day about an odor, and his take on it was what kind of odor are you leaving behind?” recalled Fr. Wrobel. “And so, of course, there are guys in the seminary who went a little crazy with that, and that was all on this T-shirt. There were some other superlative words that he used a lot.”
“He just broke up laughing,” said Fr. Widder.
Because Fr. Hying was nothing if not an appreciative audience.
“He was good with all that stuff, and he let us have fun,” said Fr. Wrobel.
Fr. Widder agreed.
“He’s really a kid at heart. He would allude that he himself in the seminary, was the instigator of a lot of pranks and a lot of mischief,” he said.
‘He has this great gift’
Andrew Schueller, director of student and young adult ministries at St. Charles, Hartland, has worked closely with Bishop Hying on a number of projects at St. Charles and throughout the archdiocese. It’s the bishop’s photographic memory that serves as the basis for many of Schueller’s favorite memories of him.
“Our pastor at the parish (Fr. Ken Omernick) used to be a professor at the seminary when Bishop Hying was a student,” said Schueller. “He’s told the story multiple times – Bishop Hying was an honor student at Marquette University, and I think he was a 4.0, top of his class – and some of the other seminarians were telling Fr. Omernick that he needed to see Bishop Hying’s college notebook. And, of course, that threw him off – he’s like, which college notebook? It turns out, from Bishop Hying’s four years at Marquette, he had only taken four pages’ worth of notes in one notebook.”
It was that uncanny ability to recall details that most impressed teenagers at St. Charles when Bishop Hying would preside over their confirmation ceremonies, said Schueller.
“He really takes the time to listen,” he said. “The confirmation candidates — even though we warned them that he has a photographic memory – were always just blown away by how much detail he can recall from the letters. It always seems to mean a lot that he can recall something that they mentioned in their letter, and work that into their individual conversation when they come up to be confirmed.”
“He has this great gift,” agreed Fr. Widder. “Like that C4 Ignite Your Catholic Faith series that he did – I guarantee, he just showed up, sat down and started talking! I remember I served at the Mass when he was installed as bishop. It was my job to hold this binder that he had – after the ceremony he would kind of give a little talk – and I was holding the binder, and he hadn’t put anything in it! He had like this tiny sheet of paper that had maybe two different words on it, and I was supposed to hold this thing, like it’s symbolic – and you would never know! It wasn’t that he wasn’t prepared; he just has this sense of holiness that just kind of oozes out of him, I would say. It’s very involuntary.”
Part of Bishop Hying’s appeal, said Fr. Widder, is his resistance to easy categorization.
“One of the things Fr. Don said – and he lived this – he said, ‘Why is it if you pray the rosary, you’re considered conservative, and if you work for social justice, you’re considered liberal? Why aren’t you just considered Catholic?’” said Fr. Widder with a laugh. “And I always appreciated that, because that’s what he did – he was at adoration, he had a devotion to Mary and the saints, he was outside of the abortion clinic – at the same time he was the chaplain for St. Vincent de Paul.
“Even now, as a priest, I always say, ‘What would Fr. Don do?’” he added. “That’s not an exaggeration.”
“He is authentically Catholic, and everything that that encompasses,” said James Fee, who has worked with Bishop Hying through the young adult group Lolek. “Love for the poor and the social justice in its comprehensiveness, but also the fullness and beauty of Catholic dogma as it applies to the human person. The complexity of the faith as it applies to who God is and what the church is – I think all of those are really seen in Bishop Hying.”
Personal touch is evident
Bishop Hying’s personal motto is Caritas numquam excidit – “love never fails.” It’s a credo that those who know him say he has always embodied.
“He’s always willing to find time to schedule and take time to fit you in,” said Fee of Bishop Hying’s involvement with Lolek. “And I think every group has the exact same feeling, that he always has time for you. I don’t think he ever really says no.”
“I think everyone at the seminary when he was rector would remember when you walked downstairs, there would be people – it would be like 9 o’clock at night, and people would be coming into his office for spiritual direction,” recalled Fr. Widder.
Anthony Horzen, a second-year pre-theology student at Saint Francis Seminary, met Bishop Hying at last year’s St. Andrew’s Dinner at the seminary while still discerning his vocation.
“We met briefly after dinner, and I let him know I was in the application process for the seminary,” said Horzen. “He said that he would like to meet sometime and get to know me. We followed up a few weeks later and had a sit-down and chat. For him to want to take the time just to get to know me as an individual meant a lot … it made me feel like more than just a face with a name.”
Fr. Wrobel maintained that without Bishop Hying’s counsel, he could never have made it through the seminary. As a late vocation, Fr. Wrobel, who was ordained at age 44, had grown accustomed to living on his own after several years, and found it difficult to thrive in the seminary’s intensely community-oriented environment.
“My second year was particularly tough,” he said. “That’s when Bishop Hying came to the seminary as director of human formation. He was different – one, in the fact that he came from a parish, but two, he really took time to get to know each of us.
“He was famous for his walks with seminarians, along the lakeshore or around the block. We just talked. He helped us to be human within our spirituality, and within our search and our discernment for being a priest. He just really cared, and you could really just tell that. He showed it in a different way that was very tangible for me. He met us where we were, and helped us to grow from there.”