Josef Day in April will celebrate life, legacy of ‘the heart of Mater Dei’ Josef D’Heygers

Many students might not notice that Campus Ministry is a two-story building with stairs that seem to lead nowhere, but actually lead to a small apartment that used to be the home of a Mater Dei custodian and caretaker. Many students might not realize that, almost every day as they walk through the 400 wing, they catch a glimpse of a portrait of an elderly man with his walking stick or a glass case filled with the recognizable accessories of this same man. These many students who do not know who this man was will have the opportunity to learn about him on April 17 on the first-ever “Josef Day.”

Josef Day will celebrate Josef D’Heygers, a humble custodian who dedicated his life to the school and its community. From sweeping the halls to donating a grand amount of money to support a campus building, D’Heygers is known as the “the heart of Mater Dei,” Director of Campus Ministry Helen Steves said.

“Josef reflects Mater Dei’s core values of honor, glory and love,” said Director of Estate and Alumni Giving Allison Bergeron, class of 1996. “His humility, generosity and unwavering sacrifice to his Mater Dei family is inspiring and worth honoring.  It is my mission to build the endowment for Mater Dei and that every Monarch knows and understands the legacy of our beloved Josef D’Heygers.”

In 1957, when D’Heygers was working as a shoemaker in Belgium, one of his close friends approached him and said that a school was opening up in the west. Quickly after that conversation, D’Heygers basically “packed everything up, left Belgium and came here on just that,” President Patrick Murphy said.

Upon his arrival in southern California, D’Heygers quickly made Mater Dei his home. He started off by serving as a custodian and carried two large rings of more than 200 keys, which granted him access to every room on campus. D’Heygers also cared for several stray cats, which he all named “Lady Monarch.” He would often place small dishes of cat food all around the school.

“There were cats everywhere,” said football head coach Bruce Rollinson, class of 1967. “It became another legend that he was a saint because these cats followed him everywhere. We would say that ‘even the cats followed him.’”

D’Heygers enjoyed watching soccer and would spend some afternoons watching the school’s soccer teams play.

“I was sitting there and I had just gotten out of soccer practice. While I was waiting for my mom to come get me, I would pet the cats and [Josef] would sit and talk to me,” said Bergeron, who was a Monarch soccer player. “I really couldn’t understand because he had a speech impediment [but] I just remember that kindness…”

Stephanie Hopkins, the Christian Service Director in Campus Ministry, also remembers how D’Heygers was “kind and very social.”

“He loved the kids so much and would just do anything for them,” she said. “He was always thinking about others before thinking of himself.”

After his first years of working at the school, D’Heygers saved up money and bought his own trailer located on the land that now houses the teacher’s lounge. Years later, when all the trailers had to be removed for a redevelopment plan funded by the Lee family, who are lifetime parents. Bergeron said the plan was a mutual decision between the Lee family and Murphy to build D’Heygers an apartment above Campus Ministry.

Rollinson worked in the Advancement Office at the time and saw Murphy’s plan for D’Heygers’ new apartment, which would be located upstairs above the school’s chapel.

“I said it was awesome,” Rollinson said. “I will be always be grateful that I work for a man like Patrick Murphy who had the force to say ‘we are going to take care of our caretaker.'”

When the apartment was completed in summer 2001, D’Heygers moved into his new home which was fit with its own stair lift.

“He told Father Steve, ‘Everything is perfect, but ‘I don’t like the chair,’” Murphy recalled with a laugh.

Fr. Steve Sallot, class of 1972, former rector and chaplin of Mater Dei from 92 to 2002, then asked D’Heygers, “What’s wrong with the chair?”

“Josef said, ‘Not fast enough. You need to speed it up,'” Murphy said. “He used to give my daughters rides up and down.”

In the late ’90s, when the school began the renovation of the chapel and the construction of the newest academic wing – which is now home to the 400 and 700 classrooms – D’Heygers approached Murphy with a significant donation.

“[Josef said,] ‘I’m donating everything, I have no relatives and I’m donating it to the school.'” Murphy said. “When he showed us how much it was, I said,  ‘Oh my!’ because this is one of the biggest gifts we had ever received.”

According to Bergeron, D’Heygers gave the school its first seven-digit donation, but he wanted to keep the actual amount discreet.

Rollinson was stunned.

“I thought, ‘Wow’ … It was the largest gift of that time,” Rollinson said. “I remember coming to tears. He just gave every dime that he had saved back to his employer.”

The school put the funds toward building the academic wing, which includes various English and science classrooms. After the construction of the new academic wing in 2002 was completed, D’Heygers asked Father Steve and Murphy to visit the building.

“He walked to the window [in his apartment] and pointed at the clock tower and said ‘You did it. My name. The kids will know,'” Murphy said. “And that was it.”

D’Heygers passed on April 3, 2010, just two weeks before his birthday, which is on April 17, the day reserved for the new Josef Day. The school honored his life and legacy with the first-ever on-campus funeral service. Bergeron said that the mass was one of the most unifying Monarch events due to the fact that many Monarch generations came together to celebrate D’Heygers’ life.

“ASB were the honor guards, and the pallbearers where generations of Monarchs, employees and fellow caretakers,” Bergeron said. “It was very beautiful and we were sad to let him go, but it was really beautiful.”

In honor of D’Heygers, the Advancement Office decided that, this coming spring, the Monarch Legacy Society will be renamed as Josef’s Legacy Guild, which is a group of individuals who have written Mater Dei into their personal wills.

“When we officially formed the Monarch Legacy Society in 2008, I can tell you that I didn’t like the name,” Bergeron said. “I didn’t feel that it reflected the originality and sentiment of Mater Dei and the individuals who make this type of commitment to our school and our students.”

D’Heygers’ own commitment to the school will be commemorated on Josef Day, which will celebrate the beloved man who frequently traveled around campus jingling with hundreds of keys at his belt and greeting all those who walked by.

“It’s such big shoes to fill. I don’t come close to him. I don’t know many people that come close to him. He was 24/7 caring and giving. It wasn’t about the money, it’s about his humility and the way he held himself and his faith in the Lord,” Rollinson said. “Now my question is to everybody: Who knows a person like that? I am able to say that he was a friend of mine and it’s just a special, special thing.”