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Catholic community helping people recover from Waukesha parade trauma

Waukesha parade

Mustafa Hussain | AFP

John Burger - published on 11/24/21

"God's light, grace, and love will have the last word,” parish says.

Some 750 people filled the pews of Waukesha, Wisconsin’s St. William Catholic Church Monday evening to pray for the victims of the city’s Christmas Parade tragedy a day earlier. St. William is one of four churches making up Waukesha’s Catholic community.  

“The room stirred with worry, confusion and mourning. Some attendees knelt silently in prayer, and others murmured quietly to one another about who was missing, who had been hurt, and had they heard anything about Father Pat?” as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described the scene. 

The pastor, Fr. Matthew Widder, announced that one of the priests who serves the Catholic community of Waukesha, Fr. Patrick Heppe, had been discharged from the hospital that afternoon and recovering well. Fr. Heppe was one of many members of the Catholic community at the parade, including more than 50 who were involved in the parade itself and many others as spectators. Five people were killed, and scores injured when the driver of an SUV sped through the parade route November 21. An eight-year-old boy has since died of his injuries.

The parade is an annual event that takes place just before Thanksgiving. 

Fr. Heppe suffered a concussion and spent Sunday night in hospital. Fifteen parishioners were hospitalized after the parade, and seven remain in hospital, Monica Cardenas, director of communication and stewardship at the parish, said in a statement. 

“Our priests have been, and continue, visiting the hospitals ministering to the injured,” Cardenas said. “They have also been counseling many of us who are coping with Sunday’s event.”

“What our community means”

Fr. Widder, at Monday evening’s prayer service, recognized that most everyone in the community had a story to tell about what happened at the parade. “But the stories just scratched the surface, right? There is a depth, a depth of what we feel inside that words can’t speak to,” he said.

So if they couldn’t speak, Widder encouraged them to weep, the Journal Sentinel said. 

“Many times, the question that we ask in these moments is: ‘Why?'” the pastor continued. But, he said, what many people ask is how they can move forward in the wake of tragedy. 

He said that after mourning, it’s important to be there for others.

“That’s what being in this community means,” he said. “We’re not meant to do this on our own.”

Auxiliary Bishop James T. Schuerman of Milwaukee was also on hand, reminding parishioners of the wider Church’s support and solidarity. 

“I was very moved by the fact that there were so many here, showing their support. And just being here to pray for those who are really hurting at this time,” Bishop Schuerman said. 

The Catholic Community of Waukesha has established a Parade Family Support Page on its website for people seeking counseling and other assistance. It also has a way for people to make donations for families in need. 

“We are a resilient community anchored in the belief that God’s presence comes to life in the midst of tragedy,” the page says. “We may not be there yet, but we know that God’s love will conquer all pain. As Catholic Christians, we will not let the horrific pain we experienced on Sunday, November 21, define us. God’s light, grace and love will have the last word. Our faith will carry us forward to our next moments…as individuals and as a community.”

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