Jacob Heidel loves his job at St. Bernadette Parish on Milwaukee’s northwest side.
And his co-workers, it seems, love having Heidel, 24, as the parish’s director of liturgical music.
“He’s like the little brother I never had,” Theresa Moniot, St. Bernadette’s administrative assistant, told your Catholic Herald. “He has such strong faith. I love seeing that faith in someone of his age, and his desire to share it with other youths. (He has a) great sense of humor. He’s very genuine.”
And, she might’ve added, very versatile. As a member of Port Washington High School’s class of 2007, Heidel was on the football and swim teams, as well as the honor roll. He sang in choral groups, acted in plays and might’ve done even more, had he not chosen to supplement school-related activities with paying jobs – including martini bar pianist.
“It’s important to be well-rounded,” he says today.
Jacob "Jake" Heidel
Parish: St. Bernadette Parish, Milwaukee
Occupation: Director of liturgical music
Hobbies: Playing the organ and camping and hiking with family
Favorite church hymn: “Immaculate Mary"
Favorite song: “Looking For Space," by John Denver
Favorite quotation: “I believe in the efficacy of prayer and I have a deep and sorroful sympathy for one who is without faith. I believe our Father answers every prayer – all prayers – with his matchless, inscrutable wisdom, with infinite compassion and with love." (Actress Loretta Young)
Long before high school, Heidel started playing piano. Nothing unusual there; many an 8-year-old has taken piano lessons. But Heidel never had a lesson. He taught himself to play the piano and, just a couple years later, the organ.
As Heidel tells it, his parents, Paul and Nancy, inherited a piano and, while neither of them played, they went along with their oldest child’s desire to play. They preferred he improvise, rather than taking lessons, and so he did, with great results.
“He’s an excellent musician,” said Moniot.
At the Heidel family’s parish church, Immaculate Conception in Saukville, the young pianist “loved seeing the pipes; the physics of the organ just got me all excited about it.” He shared his enthusiasm with School Sister of Notre Dame Jean Hasenberg, Immaculate Conception School’s principal, and Cathy Leannah, who played the organ and directed the multi-age parish choir in which he sang.
Soon, Heidel was practicing in church. By age 11 he was playing at Mass, following in the footsteps of his maternal great-grandmother, Evelyn Tonies, a church organist in Illinois. Heidel played first at Immaculate Conception, later at Holy Hill.
After graduating from high school, Heidel entered the college seminary program, for students from numerous dioceses, including Milwaukee, on Chicago’s Loyola University campus. His extracurricular activities including playing the organ at the campus church.
He moved to California in 2009, joining a good friend for a year of religious formation as a seminarian for the San Bernardino Diocese. In 2010, he took a leave of absence from seminary life.
“I needed to be a young (layman) again,” Heidel explained during an interview in his St. Bernadette office – needed the options of a full-time job, dating, etc. Additionally, he’d become aware of a crying need in Catholicism for liturgical musicians and felt called to use his talents in response.
Heidel isn’t sure when – or if – his seminary hiatus will end.
“I’m very at peace,” he said.
For now, at least, “I’m doing exactly what God wants me to do.”
As director of liturgical music, he directs choirs and instrumentalists, in addition to playing the organ and piano. He trains and schedules altar servers, lectors and eucharistic ministers. He oversees activities of the parish altar society. He makes sure liturgies adhere to church rubrics.
Along with St. Bernadette’s pastor, Fr. Greg Greiten, Heidel has organized a social/spiritual group for 14- to 17-year-olds. While starting a teen club might seem an unusual undertaking for one in his position, Heidel noted that “when you work for the church, you’re not limited to your job description.”
He added, “My youth is a great gift from God. It brings energy. (Young parishioners) connect with me because of my age and because of energy (and) my love for my faith.” As for working with parishioners two or three times his age, Heidel pointed out that he welcomes suggestions born of their wisdom and that his “age has nothing to do with my ability to lead.”
Heidel’s been not only an energetic staffer but an involved parishioner. He’s worked at fish fries, assisted in decorating the church for special occasions and served as a confirmation catechist.
“It’s so important to be generous with God,” Heidel said. “He’ll be infinitely generous back to us.”
Missing his “very tight-knit family,” including four siblings, as well as friends and seasonal changes, Heidel returned to the Milwaukee area after spending about a year in music ministry at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Sun City West, Ariz.
“Most cathedrals don’t have the pipe organ I had out in Arizona,” he remembered.
Heidel was hired at St. Bernadette in the summer of 2011. Occasionally he plays the organ at Holy Trinity Church in Newburg as well. He enjoys hiking, camping, watching the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, and football, both as a spectator and pickup game participant. If he has to, he can repair a car.
Or, appropriately enough, a pipe organ.