A man of many and varied talents, Brother William retires
July 9, 2020
Some might call him a renaissance man for his many talents and accomplishments in art and architectural design.
Others know him as a fixture in the planning and orchestration of all major liturgical celebrations at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha.
But Brother William Woeger believes his most important role is “teacher.”
Brother William, a member of the De La Salle Brothers of the Christian Schools and the longest serving current employee of the Omaha archdiocese at 42 years, retired July 1 as director of the Office of Divine Worship and provost of the Saint Cecilia Institute for Sacred Liturgy, Music and the Arts.
A native of St. Louis, Brother William was inspired by the priests and religious sisters who taught him during high school.
“All of them, in the role of educators, made a huge impression on me,” he said. “So I wanted to do that, to be a teacher. And that’s primarily what I am.”
And, over the years, most of his major duties and accomplishments involved teaching in one form or another.
Brother William entered the Christian Brothers, a teaching order, in 1963 and professed perpetual vows in 1970. He came to Omaha in 1967 as a teacher at then-Rummel (now Roncalli) Catholic High School, where he taught English, religion and art. He also taught at Omaha’s College of Saint Mary.
With a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and theology and minors in English and art from Christian Brothers College in Memphis, Tennessee, and a master’s degree in spirituality from St. Louis University, Brother William cultivated a keen interest in various forms of art as well as liturgy and spirituality.
And these subjects, plus his dedication to teaching, have informed his service ever since.
TEACHING IN MANY FORMS
“In my early years in the Brothers, it was all about teaching and education … not only in the classroom, but also extracurriculars,” he said.
“Then, in 1978, I started working for the archdiocese in the Worship Office, being invited to be on the liturgical commission,” a group appointed by the late Archbishop Daniel E. Sheehan to work on the ongoing implementation of liturgical changes following the Second Vatican Council.
Brother William began to focus attention on how ritual, art, music, architecture and other aspects of the church environment affect worship and became schooled in how the proper marriage of these elements can heighten a worshipper’s experience of the divine.
Among his most significant accomplishments was the formation of Cathedral Arts Project in 1985, owing to his notion of “cathedral culture,” he said.
As a member of the board of the national Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, he often traveled to meetings across the country, attending Mass in many cathedrals. Coupled with his experiences of cathedrals in Europe, he began exploring the role of cathedrals in a broader sense than simply that of a diocese’s mother church, he said.
CENTER OF CULTURE
“Historically, the role of the cathedral is quite broad,” Brother William said. “It’s a center of culture, of religious activity, but also a center for the humanities and the liberal arts.
“So, over the years, I developed a term called cathedral culture, which is a whole combination of spirituality, theology, literature, philosophy, the visual arts, performance.”
Brother William asked Archbishop Sheehan for permission to begin a project to cultivate an awareness in the Omaha community of that culture through the arts.
The goal was to create an organization that was identified with the Catholic Church, but also evangelized to non-Catholics without proselytizing “by exposing people to beauty, truth and goodness … the traditional kind of philosophical attributes of God,” he said.
“That’s his passion,” said coworker Marie Rubis Bauer, director of music and cathedral organist. “He thinks of cathedral culture in its biggest sense. It is a place for people to gather, to worship, to receive sacraments, to be mother church for the archdiocese, but he also envisioned it as the crossroads for all people to be welcomed.”
Cathedral Arts Project has hosted art exhibits, instrumental and choral concerts, organ recitals, lectures, tours of the cathedral, and the Cathedral Flower Festival, which draws an estimated 10,000 people each year.
The organization, overseen by a board of directors, also manages the Cathedral Cultural Center in the Monsignor Ernest Graham Center, which includes an art gallery, museum, lecture hall and gift shop, and curates the cathedral’s collection of Spanish Colonial artistic works acquired to complement the cathedral’s Spanish Renaissance architecture.
“He knows exactly what he’s looking for, and really has a big idea as far as how things go together,” Rubis Bauer said.
An artist in his own right, Brother William also created the icon of Jesus displayed at the cathedral for the Year 2000 Jubilee, and was commissioned over the years to create religious icons for 23 other churches, chapels, religious communities and other institutions across the country.
Over his career, Brother William has also served as a consultant and/or designer for 30 new churches and chapels and renovations of 33 others across the country, in Canada and in the Omaha archdiocese.
One of those projects involved the renovation of St. Cecilia Cathedral in preparation for the Year 2000 Jubilee, and most recently, the renovation of the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, formerly the church of televangelist Robert Schuller, to become Christ Cathedral of the Catholic Diocese of Orange.
Describing his consultations with architects and designers, Brother William wrote in his curriculum vitae: “I believe the design of spaces for worship, as with all the arts, is at the service of the liturgy. I help clients to understand, explore and appreciate the possibilities within their community for full expression of the Church’s liturgical rites.”
But Brother William was passionate about more than liturgy and the arts, said Father Michael Gutgsell, now pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Springfield, who as pastor of St. Cecilia Parish and rector of the cathedral, worked closely with him for 12 years. He was sensitive to the sufferings of others.
In the early 1980s, as the HIV/AIDS epidemic was making headlines, Brother William attended a dinner in Boston with a friend and several others, some of whom were dealing with the disease and who happened to be former students at schools run by the Christian Brothers. Their stories moved him, he said.
“I was sort of shocked at the coincidence, and that really kind of nudged me” into responding, he said.
He felt called by God to do something to help, Brother William said. “There’s no question that I was responding to something outside myself.”
That response led to the formation of a community-wide AIDS Task Force and the AIDS Interfaith Network, offering regular support-group meetings, including a monthly healing prayer service in the cathedrals’ Our Lady of Nebraska Chapel.
“It was some of the best ecumenical stuff, I think, that has gone on in the city here, because we weren’t focused on ecumenism, we were focused on the ministry,” Brother William said. “People got to know each other and be supportive of one another.”
Father Gutgsell said Brother William reached out to people suffering with HIV/AIDS “when they were shunned and kind of outcast and needed support. He developed personal relationships and provided a setting where people who came to pray and witness actually connected and developed relationships they didn’t have anyplace in the whole city.”
In time, other churches and denominations followed the cathedral in creating their own AIDS ministries, and the archdiocese’s pioneering effort joined with the community-based Nebraska AIDS Project to provide practical support.
Brother William’s list of other accomplishments is long and varied. It includes conducting annual training for lectors and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, instructing priests on liturgical changes with the issuance of new versions of the Roman Missal, publishing articles on worship space and liturgy, and participation in planning for archdiocese-wide events such as the Loved and Sent Conference in 1983, the Eucharistic Congress of 2003, and ArchOmaha Unite in 2019.
Not surprisingly, retirement only means a slight slowdown for Brother William.
Although leaving his archdiocesan duties behind, he will continue working with Cathedral Arts Project until a new executive director is named by the group’s board of directors.
He also will continue serving at the cathedral as liturgist, helping to plan regular parish liturgies as well as major celebrations involving Archbishop George J. Lucas.
Brother William said he hopes to travel and yearns to return to Hawaii, a place he has visited many times.
“It’s a very special place,” he said. “What makes it really special to me is the spirituality. I’ve been to Molokai many times, and I’m a big, personal fan of Father Damien (De Veuster) and Mother Marianne (Cope),” who cared for leprosy victims there. Both are now saints.
Reflecting on his years of service, Brother William said, “I’ve been able to teach, I’ve been able to be creative. I’ve been able to do that with people who are also passionate about those things.”
“So, at the end of the day, it’s all gift,” Brother William said. “When I joined the Brothers, I never would have imagined the way my life has played out.”
“I’m very grateful to the church of Omaha and the archdiocese, so much so that I’ve decided to be buried here.”
In fact, his burial plot in midtown Omaha’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery has a direct view of – appropriately – St. Cecilia Cathedral.