This story was republished on Jan. 20, 2022 to make it free for all
He still remembers the sound of bodies hitting the concrete, the faces of people as he kneeled over them to help.
The Rev. Matthew Widder had joined other marchers from Waukesha's Catholic community in the annual Christmas parade. They were just ahead of the Dancing Grannies.
What had been a joyous beginning to the holidays turned into tragedy when a driver behind the wheel of an SUV plowed through. Six people were killed; dozens were injured, including several members of the Catholic community. Among them was Widder’s colleague, Father Patrick Heppe.
"As priests, we deal with a lot of suffering," Widder said. "At any given time, there's different people dealing with different kinds of pain ... but this time, the whole community was impacted."
Just 24 hours later, Widder would stand in front of a group of more than 750 people, each looking to him for guidance.
Growing responsibilities as a priest
Widder didn't plan on being a priest.
He grew up in the Catholic faith, milking dairy cows at his home in Sheboygan Falls. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a degree in exercise science in 2004, and wanted to get into "something with sports." But in his senior year of college, he felt a pull toward ministry.
In May 2010, he completed seminary school at St. Francis de Sales near Milwaukee and was ordained a priest.
Before coming to Waukesha, he served as associate pastor at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Hales Corners, and as pastor of the combined churches of Holy Name of Jesus and St. Clement parishes in Sheboygan.
At both assignments, his energy, sincerity and humility drew in parishioners. Within weeks, he could name every student at the parish schools, and was known for dropping in on classes and — especially with younger students — getting down on hands and knees to help work on projects. His homilies were short and to the point.
At St. Mary's, when no coach was available, he stepped in and coached the eighth grade boys basketball team, roaming the sideline in his Roman collar. At Holy Name and St. Clement, he did a Texas two-step routine with a dance partner and won $10,000 for the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Sheboygan. He had neither coaching nor dance experience at the time.
"When I heard of the very tragic events in Waukesha, I knew if he was safe he was the one to shepherd this community through such a horrific event," said Regina Brown, a counselor at Whitnall High School who was principal at St. Mary's Catholic School in Hales Corners during Widder's time at that parish.
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In August 2020, Widder joined the team of priests serving St. John Neumann, St. William, St. Joseph and St. Mary in Waukesha. Just three months ago, he swapped roles with Heppe, becoming pastor.
With each step, the responsibilities have grown for a priest not yet 40 years old.
Widder said he tries not to let the pressure of helping lead such a large community hinder his ability to take care of it. And he is quick to deflect attention from himself, saying leadership can come from all places.
"My general approach is God is going to do what God is going to do," Widder said in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel interview. "God is working on the same thing, but much bigger and much better. ... My job is to show up, and be present. My job is to show up."
How do we move forward?
And so, in front of 750 people, amid the mourning and outrage and shock, Widder showed up, and continues to be present for people placing trust in the parish's leadership.
During that gathering, Widder read to his congregation the biblical story of Lazarus, a friend of Jesus' who had died. Before raising him from the dead, as the story goes, Jesus first weeps.
"Many times, the question that we ask in these moments is: Why?" Widder said from the pulpit that night. But really, what many are asking, Widder said, is how they can move forward after a terrible tragedy.
Moving forward is a "work in progress," according to Widder, and while there are leaders present in the community, including priests, deacons and other volunteers, Widder said that leadership isn't found so much in just one person but in a whole community.
"I have a small, small piece in it ... it's much bigger than me," Widder said. "When we're in a difficult time, family comes together."
The community is working with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on caring for those affected by the parade tragedy, both inside and outside their community. They're providing mental health services, hosting memorials, and mitigating services and donations between community members and the victims.
"Father Matthew has an extraordinary aura about him," Brown said. "He's a truly genuine soul, and believes wholeheartedly in the power of prayer and the power of community."
Last Sunday, for many Christian denominations, was the beginning of Advent. The word, from the Latin adventus, means "coming," and the four-week period is a time of preparing for the coming of Jesus.
Widder used his homily to speak of beginning anew — whether it's from a point of sadness and anger, or from a wheelchair or hospital bed. We all must begin anew.
The road ahead to healing is a long one, Widder said in the interview, but he has hope for the community he both comforts and receives comfort from.
"Right now, we can focus on the evil of what took place, and the horror of what took place," Widder said. "But we, at the same time, we see that evil overcome with good in massive, massive ways."
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: After Waukesha Christmas parade, priest still walks with parishioners