Dennis Clinton Graham Heiner

Every All Souls Day at the Sanctus I leave it to the Just Judge to choreograph those assembling around the altar from the Church Expectant and Triumphant. On the list now is Dennis Clinton Graham Heiner (1927-2008), who crossed 38th Street daily for Mass.

Outwardly, Dennis had a coddled childhood in New York City, and his parents sought the best for him, sending him to St. Bernard’s School, whose establishment aura was complemented by his parents’ devotion to the progressive principles of John Dewey. Robert Graham Heiner and Frances Eliot Cassidy were friends of Margaret Sanger and promoters of her eugenic theory. Their home resonated with the peaceful intercourse of curious savants from Planned Parenthood who met to discuss the annihilation of unfit people, blithe in their assumption that their sort was not threatened.

Dennis may have misrepresented himself to enlist in the Navy as a teenager, and so he served in World War II, if only at the tag end. From then it was Harvard and then Yale Law School. Mental exhaustion from the war — and growing interior conflict with his parents’ view of creation, or the lack thereof — kept him from ever practicing law. Instead, he pursued medicine at the University of Paris, but never practiced that either. He had become a Catholic in contradiction of everything his parents understood to be rightly ordered, though he never broke with them in bonds of affection. That only increased his tense nature, and then he met a psychiatrist in the form of a stately Cuban woman, Helena Reina, who left all behind in the Marxist revolution of Castro. They were married for more than 50 years, and all the while I knew them he was her nurse, for she had become blind and nearly comatose. Even toward her end, whenever I brought her the Blessed Sacrament, he sat her under an oil portrait of herself in youth. Not once did I ever hear him speak of her as anything but a blessing, or of her infirmity as anything but a benison, and he seemed never so joyful as when he tried to make her drink through a straw.

I envied his quiet library of the Greek classics and modern apologists up to Ronald Knox, and so I was astonished when bookish Dennis was arrested on December 16, 1999, at the age of 72. The Brooklyn Museum had staged a "postmodern" exhibition called "Sensation," whose centerpiece was a painting of the Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung and pornographic symbols. Dennis had stepped over a barrier and smeared a tube of white paint over it. The incident won international attention and got the mayor involved, and all heaven broke loose. At his trial, he was his own defense and recited a list of the holy images of the Blessed Mother around the world, concluding by saying that he was "answering speech with speech."


The prosecutor demanded probation, community service, and "one day of ‘sensitivity training,’" besides an order of protection forbidding him from entering the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Thomas Farber, a Jew, said that he had expected to hear nothing but hate from the defendant but only heard love. He rejected the prosecutor’s request and encouraged Dennis to visit any museum he wanted, albeit without a tube of paint.

He never came to weekly confession or daily communion without a pro-life pin in his lapel, and every Saturday he led the Rosary outside an abortion clinic. He was crossing the street to early Mass when a vehicle struck him and, though he told me he was steady, he died two days later. Months before, he had arranged Masses to be said for Helena, who had died the previous April, and his mother, who had never abjured her eugenics. Helena’s Mass was the day before he was buried, and his mother’s Mass was one hour after his funeral. A couple of years before his death, I informed him that the notorious painting had been destroyed in a London fire. He expressed no satisfaction, but in his silence one sensed that God’s judgments are severe.


Rev. George W. Rutler is the pastor of the Church of our Saviourin New York City. His latest book, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, is available through Crossroads Publishing.

Fr. George W. Rutler


Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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