I first met Father William Holt, OP, when I was a novice. Father Holt had some reason or another to be passing through St. Gertrude’s, home of our Dominican novitiate. (He had presumably come “to fly the flag,” as he often said.) His presence dwarfed that of even my larger-than-life novice master. When Father Holt was in the room, everyone struggled to get a word in (except him).
He was filled with witty one-liners, which he dubbed “Helpful Hints from Holt.” Often as wise as they were outrageous, he occupies legendary status among the young friars who knew him, in no small part thanks to these widely proffered — rarely solicited — pieces of priestly advice.
“Always ring the doorbell with your elbows,” Father Holt recommended. In Father Holt’s view, both arms should be full of gifts for your host.
“It’s called the economy of salvation, brother,” Father Holt chided. This meant a Sunday Mass was to be 38 minutes.
“See these hands?” he would ask as he shook them in front of you. “They’re anointed, not cut off.” A priest should work hard, Father Holt believed. That meant not just priestly duties but included anything else that came one’s way.
“You’re not in the Order to make friends, pal. Look at the crucifix. There’s your friend,” he urged. There was a depth to his appreciation of religious life. He had little patience for attention-seeking or complaints.
A magnetic priest
Father Holt presented himself impeccably. His white habit was rarely touched by a stain and always meticulously ironed. (This alone distinguished him from any number of friars who often bear evidence of the week’s menu on their scapulars.)
His finest quality was his ability to think of others.
He was a man of countless friendships. He mailed an absurd number of Christmas cards each year. He always wrote to the brothers individually, celebrating their professions and ordinations and major anniversaries.
Sometimes it took the form of friendly teasing, like in the Holt-isms above. He went viral several times on social media. Most recently, he was featured in a Humans of New York Facebook post. (He called me afterward to make sure I had seen it and needled me, saying that old friars can still show young friars “how it’s done.”) In the post, he prayed, “From all sour-faced saints, deliver me, O’ Lord. I don’t want to be with a grouch, a crab, a crocodile in a moat.”
That demeanor was magnetic. Part of it was shaped by his New Jersey home, part of it was his Irish blood. All of it was priestly. It drew people to him. And it wasn’t just performative, it was real.
Friendship with Christ
I wonder how many New Yorkers had their lives touched by him, as he stood outside the priory on Lexington Ave., enjoying a bit of “fresh air.” How many souls did he absolve in the confessional at St. Vincent Ferrer?
He had a way of drawing one’s attention to what really mattered. And he loved being a priest.
In fact, Father Holt passed away in Ireland, having had an incredible final day on this side of heaven. The previous day he had anointed another older priest and concelebrated a wedding Mass. He was an active and engaged priest to the very end.
Last year, Father Holt told America Media: “Jesus is the center of my life. Not only his teaching, but the union with the Father, and obedience. I really think that’s the center of it all.”
Incorrigible, persevering and cheerful, Father Holt’s approach to priestly life was possible not because of his many friends, but because of his one great friend, Jesus Christ.
He truly was, as he styled himself, “the last of the old time greats.”