Bishop Austin Vetter of Helena

On Wednesday, November 20, the Most Rev. Austin Vetter (52), a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, was ordained a bishop and installed as the 12th Bishop of Helena, Montana. He was formerly a Spiritual Director at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, the seminary which he himself attended. Like so many other American bishops coming from that source he decided to have his coat of arms designed and emblazoned by an amateur heraldist, a man with another profession, who has begun to work extensively in the field of ecclesiastical heraldry due to his many contacts in Rome. The results are usually somewhat disappointing – not bad; not incorrect; not poorly rendered – but just drab, unimaginative and a ceaseless repetition of the same things over and over again plugged into a basic template making all of them appear, essentially, the same.

From the program prepared for the Ordination we read the following description prepared by the person who designed the coat of arms: “Bishop Vetter’s personal coat of arms blends images representing his origins: the crescent moon is for the Blessed Mother, the Immaculate Conception, patroness of the United States, the Diocese of Bismarck, and the Pontifical North American College (Bishop Vetter’s alma mater where he also later served on faculty); the sheaves of wheat which combine the concept of the Eucharistic symbol and the principle product of the farm where Bishop Vetter grew up; a “wavy barrulet,” the water representing “the spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14) and the Missouri River which begins in Montana and flows through Bismarck, North Dakota; and a “gemel in chevronwise,” one of them recalling the rafter holding the roof of the church which is set upon the foundation of the apostles with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone (meaning protection) and the second representing the Rocky Mountains of Montana.

The color blue (Azure) symbolizes the separation from the worldly values and the ascent of the soul toward God, therefore the run of the Celestial Virtues which raise themselves from the things of the earth toward the sk y. It als o represents the Blessed Mother and the “Big Sky” of Montana. The silver (Argent) of the crescent symbolizes the transparency and the purity of the Virgin Mary. The garb, sheaves of wheat, is in gold (Or), the first among the noble metals, then the symbol of the first of the Virtues , the Faith which enables us to believe in the Eucharistic Host, fruit of wheat, real body of Christ.”


The second paragraph which goes on and on about the symbolism of the colors betrays an error that many amateur heraldist make. Namely, assuming that there are definite meanings assigned to different colors in heraldry. There aren’t. Perhaps, the armiger has chosen to assign meanings to certain colors for himself personally but if that is the case the explanation should stipulate that, as in, “The bishop feels that the color blue means XYZ to him because…” Otherwise, it’s simply made up out of whole cloth.

Another interesting thing in the explanation which goes to my point about the repetition in this person’s designs is the explanation of the use of the “gemel”. In heraldry the word gemel means “twin”. It is a term taken from Scottish heraldry primarily and does not describe a particular charge or object. Rather, it is an adjective that describes certain ordinaries or subordinaries as being depicted twinned, or in a pair. So, it’s not an object, a gemel “chevron wise” (i.e. arranged in the shape of a chevron). Instead, it should be blazoned “Two chevronels gemel”, that is, two thinner chevrons paired.

What is also interesting is this explanation of the coat of arms of a bishop this same artist did several years ago, “The chevron is an heraldic device, best described as an inverted “V”; it signifies the rafter, which holds the roof of the church, and symbolizes the concept of protection.” Does that sound familiar? Perhaps it is supposed that every bishop must have a chevron of some kind in his coat of arms as a symbol of a church? Are there no other symbols of a church, or of the Church, or of protection?

This bishop’s last name – Vetter – comes from the German for “cousin” and yet there was no attempt to try and symbolize that. His first name, Austin, is derived from the name Augustine and yet none of the symbols associated with that saint were used. Why do I point this out? Because a coat of arms is first and foremost a mark of personal identification. As I have written here numerous times, it is not a CV in pictures! It’s not supposed to be about where you are from, where you lived, where you went to school, etc. It is, instead, supposed to identify you, personally. So, using charges that in some way alluded to his name or family name, while far from a necessity in any coat of arms, might have proven a better starting point and certainly would have made for a mark of identity that was more personal.

Instead, there is another cookie-cutter coat of arms. And yet the question persists of “Why are so many bishops’ coats of arms so poorly done?” It is, I believe, because too many bishops are content to copy what they have seen before for the sake of “getting it done” instead of consulting with someone who is well versed in heraldic science as well as someone who can provide real heraldic art instead of something using a computer generated template. This coat of arms, like others is not, as I wrote above, bad, incorrect or poorly rendered. But, it is rather disappointing.

10 thoughts on “Bishop Austin Vetter of Helena

  1. Fr. Pachomius Meade, OSB

    Your critique of the three or so combo of charges and ordinaries we keep seeing among U.S. are spot on as usual. It occurs to me that the diocesan arms of Helena are, conversely, quite thoughtful (St. Helena, the True Cross) and unique (chevronny). It’s not that I would suggest a bishop copy or try to coordinate with the diocesan arms, but they should look to some of the better See coats of arms to understand what could be done. Of course, that is assuming a lot…

  2. Cyril Michael Dredge

    I cannot believe that some sub-editor did not pick up the howler: “principle” as in “sheaves of wheat which combine the concept of the Eucharistic symbol and the principle product of the farm where Bishop Vetter grew up.” This is a grade school English student standard error… yet someone allowed it to be published?

    1. guyselvester Post author

      It’s a quote from the description prepared by the heraldic artist whose first language is not English. Perhaps those responsible for publishing it in the diocese felt they shouldn’t change any of it?

      1. Cyril Michael Dredge

        Yes, I realise that it was quoting the designer; however, as it was published in an official diocesan publication, surely a simple spelling error should have been corrected. To leave it as it shows a lack of care, I feel. Who knows who will read it (like me, an old English teacher, now in Ireland) and judge the diocese as careless, by seeing an obvious mistake?

      2. guyselvester Post author

        I mentioned it because of a similar incident I experienced. My diocese recently launched a new website. The same artist who did Bp. Vetter’s coat of arms worked on my bishop’s coat of arms. On the new diocesan website they published the written description exactly as it had been given to them and I noticed an error. When I brought it to the attention of the webmaster it was promptly corrected but it was also explained to me that they simply took his written description and used it without necessarily proofing it. So, it is easy to imagine that in the case of Bp. Vetter’s coat of arms and description either someone hadn’t proof-read the description, or may have mistakenly thought they needed to leave that description untouched and as is. Since, in the U.S. at least, there is a great rush to get the coat of arms designed and then reproduced in time for the ordination and/or installation sometimes things fall through the cracks. So, I suppose I can easily see how a mistake like that got through. I have to admit I simply copied and pasted that description because I wanted to quote it in its entirety. I’m a little annoyed that I didn’t catch it myself!

      3. Cyril Michael Dredge

        I understand some of that. If you are a publisher and using a provided text, and there is an obvious error, you could add (sic) to indicate that the publisher knows the error, but that would probably serve only to highlight the inadequacy of the original writer! Maybe more charitable to quietly correct it, and tell the original writer personally that you had done so. They could learn for future projects.
        On another matter, I noticed another howler in National Catholic Reporter recently: they used mitigate instead of militate (against). In an Editorial, of all places. Where are the Sub-Editors, especially if an Editor cannot use the correct word?

      4. Cyril Michael Dredge

        I agree that editors seem to be rare; some of the spelling and grammatical howlers are increasing. Some of my favourite horrors are “disorientated”, the “principle/principal” one I mentioned, and the “mitigate/militate” confusion. Do you have any favourites?

      5. guyselvester Post author

        I have discovered that “disorientated” is the result of the difference between British English vs. American English. In the UK the word “disoriented” sounds incorrect to them.

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