During my student years at St. Louis University, Father Claude Heithaus, S.J. taught in the Classical Languages Department. I was far from one of his star students in a course devoted to translating and studying the Roman poets Catullus and Martial.
Father Heithaus was a classical archaeologist. Student gossip suggested that he had once noticed some caves high above the Dead Sea, and had dismissed the thought that anything of interest might be found there. A few years later the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, guess where? This, we suspected, explained how he happened to be teaching obscure Latin poetry instead of appearing as a guest on late night television. It also might have explained why he never smiled.
Little did any of us suspect that he had already made his claim to renown, in a world far removed from ancient scrolls and much closer to home. On February 11, 1944 he delivered a homily on racial justice at St. Francis Xavier College Church. His homily is credited with leading to the integration of St. Louis University when black students were admitted for the first time later that year.
For this singular and most remarkable act of courage, Father Heithaus was reprimanded by Jesuit University President Patrick Holloran, S.J.; by St. Louis Archbishop John Glennon; and by his Jesuit superiors. He was effectively banished from the scene, only to be ‘brought in from the cold’ years later, an old man who had overlooked something of great importance and dared to speak out for something of even great importance.
Only recently, has his courage been acknowledged; Father Heithaus’ homily was re-read at St. Francis Xavier College Church on February 27, 2013. Here you can read about this remarkable man and his remarkable words.
To quote George Orwell, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Father Heithaus apparently missed the Dead Sea Scrolls, but he saw most clearly and argued most forcefully that no one claiming to be Christian can oppose racial equality.
As for his students years later, staring bleary-eyed at ancient Latin verse and wondering what to make of it, we missed completely the hero we had in our midst.