Signs, angels, an undying love and what happens next
Married in 1957, Bill and Mary Ann Hein were blessed with four children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They were lovingly married for 64 years, but then, just two years ago, on Sept. 15, Bill passed away. During his month of hospice care, Mary Ann told the healthcare worker, “He can’t die—I need him to open jars and read directions!” The worker, a widow herself, assured Mary Ann that Bill would indeed be there when she needed him. After Bill died, Mary Ann realized what the worker meant. “When I drop stuff or struggle to put something on, I say, ‘Oh, Bill, you’ve gotta help me.’ And he does. He’s right there.”
Bill provides help when Mary Ann needs it. She also knows that other widows have the same doubts and frustrations she had. “Look around you; your husband is there in the form of an angel,” she says reassuringly. “Things happen that are not by chance.”
She wishes to be with her husband again, but firmly believes that God still has a plan for her. Through the years, she grappled with sadness and depression, anger and doubt, and feelings of loneliness and frustration. Still, one story after another flows out of Mary Ann as she also talks about God-filled experiences and holy moments, making it apparent that her whole life is full of mission.Mary Ann draws from a deep well of strength and fortitude from within her that has kept her busy and feisty. From the very beginning, miracles and blessings have been scattered among everyday memories.
Becoming “the Best Catholic”
Mary Ann said that Bill was raised without religion in his youth. While they were dating and later engaged, Mary Ann said that Bill would drive from the south side of Chicago all the way to the north side just to pick her up and take her to St. Priscilla’s Catholic Church for Sunday Mass.
“He’d read in the car while I went inside for Mass. I prayed and prayed that he would join me in church, but I knew it had to be by his own choice. I knew I couldn’t force him. Finally, he realized that since we were going to get married, he might as well go in with me,” Mary Ann said of Bill’s conversion. He completed his instruction of the Catholic Faith at St. Priscilla Church and they married at Immaculate Conception Church in Butternut, Wis., “God inspired him,” she says. “He was the best Catholic. That’s what prayer does!”
Right away, the couple started their family, and while Bill held an executive position at a company in Winona, Minn., Mary Ann chose to stay home to raise their children. The Heins both had a farming background and decided to purchase a large working farm property in southwest Wisconsin. They started with two heifers and then bought 10 more. As the herd multiplied, they had up to 66 head of cattle.
At first, the Heins worked together to cut, bale and store the hay from their pastures, but eventually rented out the fields to share the work and split the yield. Mary Ann recalls one particular autumn when the tenant went into the fields to make the hay and, unfortunately, baled the back swath, the area of grass in the shade next to the woods, which was still wet. “Every farmer knows you can’t bale wet hay,” she explained. “If the hay doesn’t dry out, it can cause livestock to abort their offspring, or it can combust and start a barn fire.”
Mary Ann prayed to God that this man would stop baling, but he didn’t. Then, she hoped that she would get the dry bales when they split the yield. “I was so mad at that bad hay,” she said. “I was angry and cussing, and I was angry at God. Bill never saw me so upset. He suggested that we leave everything and go to church.” At Mass, Mary Ann saw an orange, wavy light pointing to the host in the form of a “V” under the chalice on the altar. She asked her daughter next to her if she could see this vision. Her daughter shook her head no. It was only when Mary Ann arrived home and cut open the last hay bale that she noticed the hay was dry. She realized she had fed all that hay to her cows all winter. “Then I heard a voice that was neither man nor woman,” she said. “Didn’t you see all along the hay was dry?”
A Life and Legacy of Giving
Eventually, the Heins downsized to two cows, and Mary Ann, in her 50s, began a new chapter in her life—she worked in the public schools as a parent-aide and acted as a social worker to help less fortunate families. When it came to helping others, Mary Ann said there was nothing she wouldn’t tackle. She gathered boxes of donated food and delivered them on home visits. She acquired artificial Christmas trees to help people decorate for the holiday and was known to dress up like Mrs. Claus while delivering food and gifts to families.
Mary Ann made such an impact with her work ethic and passion that she was offered a position as an outreach worker. In outreach, she continued to work with children and families in the foster care system. “I was never too proud to beg for somebody else. Once, we filled an entire pick-up truck with supplies for a woman displaced by an abusive husband.” In this way, God has always provided for Mary Ann’s social service outreach ministry and fortitude for her own family’s care.
Additionally, Bill and Mary Ann served in various ways in their Catholic Church community. Bill assisted the buildings and grounds committee and served on the finance council. Mary Ann was a cantor and helped with music ministry, was president of the Altar Society (ladies’ council), was a den mother for her sons’ various Cub Scout troops, and created and ran a major fashion show as a fundraiser for ecumenical gatherings in the community for women of multiple faiths.
A few years ago, Bill and Mary Ann agreed their farm legacy would be donating their 375 acres to the Mississippi Conservancy so that, in keeping with their organic and natural lifestyle, the land cannot be developed or fracked. It will remain a preservation for wildflowers and grasses to provide for an abundance of birds, bees and butterflies for future generations. “I tell people, [the land] is for you and the planet,” she said.
Now, from years of hard work, at age 85, Mary Ann has had major back surgery that requires her to use a walker due to paralysis of her left leg. “I didn’t expect this to happen after my surgery, but I think God puts us in these situations to enrich our Faith. Every day, angels show up when I need them. Your angels are there to help you, along with Jesus and Mary.” But, because Mary Ann was used to being the person who helps and serves others, it’s challenging for her to be the one who needs assistance. “I don’t like to ask people for help because I don’t want to put people out,” she admitted. “I feel indebted. I feel like I should be the one doing something for them, but I know I need to ask and allow others that same joy that I feel when I’m helping.”
The Inspiration of Blessed Carlo Acutis
Mary Ann prayed that God would provide her with her next mission—a new purpose. Her inspiration came from a prayer card given to her previously by nuns. The forgotten card resurfaced, and Mary Ann knew this was a jolt calling her to her mission. The prayer card was for an English-born Italian boy named Carlo Acutis (1991-2006). Carlo was exceptionally devoted to the Faith, the Eucharist, the saints, the rosary and living out the love of Jesus. His life’s purpose was to document and develop a website to promote all the eucharistic miracles that have taken place globally.
Mary Ann is so taken by this blessed modern young man and his immense devotion to the Faith, the Eucharist and the rosary, that she wants to increase awareness for his cause for canonization and, by his example, help local youth rediscover the truth about Jesus and the Catholic Church. “I worry about our youth. They have to take the Eucharist seriously. We believe when we receive Communion, Jesus is inside of our hearts. Now, at my age, when I receive the Eucharist, I cry,” she admitted uncomfortably. “It’s an emotional feeling of, ‘‘Jesus, you’re with me’.”
“In widowhood, you are never alone.”
Story by Marcy Stenstrom
Photo by Design Photography
Published in the November/December 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine