Friday, February 15, 2013

A Beacon of a Deacon

I am sad to note today the passing of Deacon Bill Steltemeier, longtime leader at EWTN, second only to EWTN's foundress, Mother Angelica, in his influence and authority at the Network.

Deacon Bill Steltemeier (left) with Jeremy Stanbary on the set of my series, The Theater of the Word,
in the studios of EWTN, 2008.
Deacon Bill was a man of great Southern charm.  A Nashville boy who was educated at Chaminade College Prep school in my home town of St. Louis, he would often talk with me at length on my visits to Irondale.

One conversation in particular stands out.

Deacon Bill told me this story in the small EWTN private dining room.

Once, in the early days of the Network, when we were very short on money, we received a donation in the mail.  A check for $100,000.  Naturally, I called the donor on the telephone to thank him personally.  The next month, another check in the same amount from the same man.  I called to thank him again.  This went on for several months.  We were delighted, and we desperately needed the money.
Then, in one of our phone conversations, he said to me, "You know, Deacon Bill, I'm a bit concerned that EWTN is taking a hard line on pro-life issues.  I think you need to soften your stance a bit."
And I said, "Well, I appreciate how you feel, but we have to present what the Church teaches, and Mother won't have it any other way."
And he said, "Let me put it this way.  If you want to keep receiving my $100,000 checks every month, you'll do what I suggest and tone it down when it comes to pro-life."
And I said, "Well, you know where you can stick your $100,000 checks." 

But that last line only really works if you can picture it in Deacon Bill's genteel Southern accent.

And yet - what integrity!  What love for the Church.  What faith in Mother Angelica.

***

Then there was the time when we were filming The Surprise and Dale Ahlquist and I were acting out the scene where we're both drunk - a scene which had disturbed the director to begin with, as EWTN's audience is a bit touchy when it comes to these things.  And Dale and I both knew that we were pushing the envelope at the Network just by having any sort of drama on at all - much less a scene of drunken revelry.

There we were drunk and falling all over each other and who should walk on set but Deacon Bill!  We were mortified.

"I've got to tell Mother!" he said in that thick Southern drawl.  We didn't know if he was excited that we were filming a play by Chesterton, or if he were shocked that we were pretending to be drunk.

Dale turned to me.  "'I've got to tell Mother!' What does THAT mean???"

But somehow we survived, and The Surprise is still being re-run every Advent season.

***

And yet my most stunning memory of the man was a very ordinary moment in the dining hall.  My actors and I had just finished lunch and Deacon Bill was sitting there chatting with us.  We never quite knew if Deacon Bill was aware of who we were.  He seemed to remember me every time I came down, and we took a liking to each other, but he had a lot on his plate, and he was old and a bit infirm even then, so we didn't know if he was quite aware of who the Theater of the Word was and what we were doing.

Then, out of nowhere, he said, "Let's pray, shall we?"

And he offered up, spontaneously, the most remarkable prayer I had ever heard.  He seemed to know exactly who we were, what our needs were, and where we were spiritually - and a window opened up right then and there between him and God.  He was simply speaking to Our Lord, directly, intimately, and God was somehow in the room listening to him as he prayed.

He asked for guidance and blessing upon our rough road as actors and entertainers.  He asked that our work for the Network be blessed and that it might bring souls to Christ.  But his prayer was gentle, calm, fluid.

It remains the most amazing moment of spontaneous prayer I have ever witnessed.  It was a conversation with God that made your jaw drop, and I had no doubt the Lord was listening.  When he finished the prayer I had tears in my eyes.  The man was clearly on his way to becoming a saint.

***

Raymond Arroyo today repeated the story of Deacon Bill's first encounter with Mother Angelica.

.. while attending a legal convention in Chicago, Deacon Bill decided to hear Mother Angelica speak at a church outside the city.
“He was just mesmerized by Angelica,” said Raymond Arroyo, host of The World Over and biographer of Mother Angelica. Deacon Bill told him that, as he listened, “she looked over and locked eyes with him, and he heard a voice interiorly, ‘Until the day you die.’ I knew my life belonged to her from that first instant, no question.”
Hearing the same words interiorly for over a month prompted Deacon Bill to visit Birmingham. Arroyo explained, “Mother Angelica shows up at the doorway and said to him, ‘I wondered when you were coming.’”
From then on, Deacon Bill became Mother Angelica’s faithful servant and friend.

***

Faithful servant, faithful friend.

Receive into the fullness of Your light Your faithful servant, O Lord.

God bless Deacon Bill.

2 comments:

Sandra Liceaga said...

Deacon Bill was awesome! May his soul rest in peace.

Anonymous said...

I loved Deacon Bill and I think he's a Saint! I've often prayed that God would give me the joy and peace he seemed to have. Hasn't happened yet but I believe in miracles! :) He will be greatly missed.

Peace and all good,
brenda