Amy Heller displays courage by talking about her terminal illness during her visit
On March 29, Amy Heller, the retired ESD senior chaplain, visited campus and talked to students and staff during Chapel about leadership and perseverance. She shared her story about battling cancer with the community.
“It felt wonderful returning to ESD,” Heller said. “Being able to return and see you all was a true blessing.”
During her time as chaplain, she inspired and impacted many. English Department Chair Tolly Salz said that Heller made everybody feel welcome, especially in the chapel.
“[It was] just her humor and her generous heart,” Salz said. “I think that she is a very wise person. She has a beautiful calm and a great optimistic spirit. That has always comforted me.”
Language Department Chair Laila Kharrat, who is Muslim, agrees and said that Heller helped her feel comfortable talking about her own religion in an Episcopal school.
“She encouraged me year after year to speak in chapel [and] to share [my religion] with the community,” Kharrat said. “I finally had the courage to speak in chapel, which was while she was still here. It is one of the most proud moments of my life. I felt like not only was I sharing a big part of my identity with the community, but I felt like I took a step that was courageous, and I put myself on the line.”
Current ESD Senior Chaplain Fr. Nate Bostian has been close to Heller since the early 2000s when they met. Since then, he said that she has greatly impacted him on his ministry path.
“She has been an incredible mentor for me whenever I was a college minister before I was ordained into the priesthood,” Bostian said. “She showed me a lot of what it means to be a priest, [and] how to do ministry with people. She showed me how to celebrate the sacraments in beautiful and life-giving ways. Her mentorship has profoundly impacted me.”
Heller was happy to have a chance to talk with Fr. Bostian during her visit.
“The next most exciting thing was to catch up with Fr. Nate on how his ministry [at ESD] among you is going,” Heller said.
Over the years, they got very close and encouraged each other, even outside of the ministry world.
“As I got ordained and got into [being a] school chaplain, I had many, many conversations with her about different things I was struggling with; about different things, she was struggling with,” Bostian said. “We shared a lot of different ideas about how to overcome those things.”
Heller greatly valued the ESD community and worked to strengthen the community bond. She helped bring the lower, middle, and upper schools together by being a full-time chaplain for all three divisions.
“ESD was six years of incredible ministry for me,” Heller said. “I was brought in to deepen the roots of our Episcopal identity and then help us become one campus, and those were passion projects for me. I find my call to ministry has always involved teaching about the love of God for everyone and for building a community that respects the dignity of its members.”
Heller supports everyone that she encounters in her life. Bostian said that she always was “incredibly encouraging” to him.
“She is a person who will identify your gifts, affirm those gifts, and encourage you to use those gifts,” Bostian said. “But she’s also a person who is a really good coach; she will note whenever she sees something to be improved.”
Originally, Heller planned to visit last spring, but her treatment made her weak. Heller said she was excited to come to ESD this spring.
“I think the most exciting part was simply being with you all after two years away,” Heller said.
Heller was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in September 2020 but had been in remission since her initial breast cancer diagnosis in 2001. In January 2021, she resigned to focus full-time on her medical care.
Kharrat appreciated Heller’s courage and bravery in talking about her terminal illness.
“It’s humbling when somebody who knows that they’re not gonna make it is coming with a smile on their face and saying, ‘God is with me, and I’m with God,’” Kharrat said.
Salz agrees, remembering her courage and accomplishments as a chaplain.
“She is a very strong woman,” Salz said. “She’s a very smart woman. And she’s got incredible faith and heart to give to others even when she herself might be struggling.”
Throughout her treatment, Heller’s history as a chaplain and her strong faith in God helped her remain centered.
“God loves you and is with you always,” Heller said. “I believe that very deeply. I also wanted to convey that one part of leadership is to be a voice and advocate for those whose voices are trying to be heard in a community. There is so much noise in our lives these days, and Jesus sets a strong example of walking with [us].”