Meet Father Bill Holt, the Dominican priest who went viral on ‘Humans of New York’

On October 5, the Rev. William Holt, an 80-year-old Dominican priest, went viral on social media. He was photographed for the popular Humans of New York Facebook page, where he shared the story of an inspiring encounter with a girl with leukemia. On October 6, I met with him at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to learn a little more about his life and his path to the priesthood and his secrets to living a life full and happy. Our conversation has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

I was walking down Park Avenue and he stopped me, Brandon Stanton [the creator of the “Humans of New York” project], and he said, “Can I ask you something?” And I said, “Sure.” And he said, “I’ve met a lot of unhappy priests.”

[I replied,] “Well, I’m sorry you did, I’m really sorry. But I am not that.

Do you still minister in the parish here at St. Vincent Ferrer?

I help; I say mass publicly. I am the main celebrant twice a week and I hear confessions three times a week. And then I see some people. I stand on the porch and smoke and meet the world, right? But I have met, and had, some very interesting conversations.

And you have a Jesuit background?

I grew up in St. Peter Parish in Jersey City. There were 26 Catholic churches, now there are 15. There were 42 Jesuits in San Pedro. Do you know how many there are now? Five.

So you were in the parish of San Pedro?

Yes. It was the center of our lives, you know, the gym and the schoolyard. And the priests there were all very nice. And my first Mass was at St. Peter’s and Joseph Taylor, SJ, preached. He was there for 42 years.

So you entered the Dominicans and your first mass was in a Jesuit parish?

Yes. That’s where we all grew up.

You say in the short article published by “Humans of New York” that you just want to be surrounded by happy people: [“But I want to hang out with people who enjoy life.”] What do you mean by that?

I mean people who really have a positive outlook on life, who really understand the resurrection of Christ who said: peace, wholeness.

And I really think if people understand who they are and why they’re here, they’re in a better frame of mind. When people feel like they’re the only ones in the world, it’s tragic, really tragic. Or people who are very, very self-centered or materialistic.

And yet, as a priest, you probably aren’t surrounded by happy people all the time. Right?

No. You’re in the confessional and you hear it.

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What have been your ministries as a Dominican?

Mainly parishes. I was at the fundraiser; She hated it. I really hate raising money. But I did: three and a half years.

And I was a missionary in Peru. He ran a retirement home and was the community attorney. We had a large retreat house and the Cursillos were the most important thing.

So what do you want to tell people about living a happy life?

Well, I think they really should understand why God made them and who Christ is to them. You know, ‘How’s your soul?’ It’s not a bad question.

And I often suggest, you know, [your parish priest] it is its Priest, if you feel connected to him, ask to see him and let him pick his brain. Let him discover what makes you tick. And then you can have an ongoing conversation.

What motivated you to want to be a priest?

I think the priests who were at St. Peter’s were really wonderful dedicated men, really, really happy men, all of them. I could name them, and they were very good to us.

So the Jesuits made you want to be a priest? And then you joined the Dominicans? Why?

Well, because I was with them in the Dominican [summer] to camp.

I think I was shocked to see [the Dominicans] He had meditation and mass; I was always impressed by meditation. The priests would be in the choir stalls looking at the tabernacle, focused on Jesus. That is all. I really think it’s very important.

So who is Jesus to you?

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. And I really believe that silent time, you need silence, the thunder of silence, you need it in prayer. I truly believe that with all my heart.

How would you encourage young people to find Jesus?

I always tell them to make a withdrawal. I always send them to [St. Joseph’s Abbey, the Trappist monastery in] Spencer, Massachusetts. I think you need a thunder of silence.

Have you ever heard of the Dominican Sisters of Nashville? It is a community of Dominican sisters in Nashville, Tenn.—St Cecilia. At 5:30 in the morning, 150 [sisters] looking at the tabernacle, not a sound of beads, not a cough, not a page turn. And then they start the Office and then the Mass. Those who are at home, sick or elderly, make a holy hour in the morning, exposition all morning, and have prayer at noon and then at night. And a lot of silence. Wonderful job. I have given two retreats there; more than that, but two big ones, and I love them.

What advice would you give to young people who want to be happy?

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I think they should have a great relationship with their siblings, parents, and classmates. But they really have to have their own identity. They really have to understand who they are and their gifts. I always ask children: “Tell me three good things about yourself”.

How do they do that?

I want you to write it. You really have to think about this. No, this is not a TV show. And I really think they have to experience silence.

What do we learn in silence?

I think you really learn to listen to God.

What is your favorite Bible verse?

My favorite is the story of the prodigal son, because I think that’s what happens to a lot of people. Many people stay away from their parents for money.

The father in the story, like God, always runs after us and there is mercy. I love stories of people coming home; I love conversion stories. I love them. I always ask people: “Why do you want to be Catholic?” The best answer I’ve ever heard: “I’m hungry for the Eucharist.”

What do you want people to know about faith today?

I want you to come to church; I want them to walk. I want you to sit down for at least 20 minutes, without a book, and look at the tabernacle. They have to experience the silence in the church. They really have to understand it. I really believe that silence is imperative.

What has silence taught you over the years?

Silence taught me to listen. Silence taught me to listen, because I am a great conversationalist. I would talk about the handle on that door. But silence is a great thing.

Any last words?

I think people really should know how blessed they are by God and all the gifts he has given them. They should be aware of that. And I think the real essence of understanding God’s love is all of that: people’s intellect, their imagination, their energy, their enthusiasm… but their real love for each other, I think that really shows, really proves it. You see it a lot in families; you know, people who really care about each other; especially when, say, the mother has Alzheimer’s and the children take care of her at home. It is very difficult to do, very difficult. But when you take care of them at home, it really shows. I really think so.

This is really my last question. Who was the happiest person you’ve ever met?

James Murphy, OP, one of our brothers in Somerset, Ohio. High energy; but he was in the chapel before anyone else, in the chapel after everyone else, truly a man of prayer.

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