Marathon County, in the middle of Wisconsin, is a thick forestry region where winter comes early. It’s a three-hour, 180-plus mile drive from Waukesha that Fr. Matthew Dougherty had called home for most of his life.
In November, during deer hunting season, Marathon County can get cold but it’s the place Fr. Dougherty loved to be. It was 2008, seven years before his ordination as a priest, and the cold had made a home for itself beside the hunters.
“I’d been sitting out there for a couple of days,” Fr. Dougherty said, adding he hadn’t seen a thing. “There was snow on the ground. It was getting kind of miserable out. But right before sunset I was still out there on the deer stand and out came this eight-point buck.”
Fr. Dougherty had spent many hunting seasons sitting in deer stands and waiting, but most of the time nothing appeared.
With his .30-06 Remington rifle cradled in his arms, he started to hear the rustling of dried leaves and branches.
“Your heart starts to pump and you start looking around to see what it is,” he said. “And then all of a sudden you see that white tail.”
Fr. Dougherty said his breathing became heavy.
“You’re adrenaline starts rushing, then it comes into full view,” he said.
The eight-point buck finally came into the open — a nearby cornfield. Fr. Dougherty’s heart was pounding in his ears faster and faster. He struggled to control his breathing.
“When you put the scope on the buck, you’re shaking,” Fr. Dougherty said. “There’s so much anticipation, so much adrenaline going through you that you just have to slow your breathing and pull that trigger slowly … so you don’t flinch.”
Fr. Dougherty didn’t flinch. He pulled the trigger and the buck went down. He’d never gotten a deer that big before or since that trip, but for him, it isn’t always about coming home with a prize.
“I think one of the great things about the deer hunting experience is the deer camp,” he said. “Being with your friends and your family and experiencing it together. It’s kind of a cultural event in a way. It’s something that brings people together to celebrate our Wisconsin heritage.”
For Fr. Dougherty, 28, being out in the wilderness was a time for deep thought and prayer — like a “mini-retreat.”
“It is a perfect time to say a rosary, to think about the bigger questions of life,” he said. “It really affords you that space because you got nothing else to do. It kind of lends itself to prayer to constantly asking the bigger questions in your life,” he added, admitting there are times when he falls asleep in the deer stand.
Hunting wasn’t something meant for the wall of the living room or basement. For Fr. Dougherty, it’s more about enjoying nature, he said, adding that everything the group kills is eaten or put to use.
“I would shy away from the word ‘trophy’ because I think sometimes people associate that with trophy hunting instead of hunting for food,” Fr. Dougherty said, adding, for example, the entire eight-point buck he killed was used for food.
Growing up in Waukesha and attending Waukesha North High School, he fished on Pewaukee Lake about three times a week.
“We didn’t get huge fish but we got some fish,” Fr. Dougherty said. “But even perch fishing or bluegill fishing was always a lot of fun.”
And during this time immersed in nature, his faith was strong, mostly because of his family.
“My parents were very religious. We prayed the rosary all the time,” Fr. Dougherty said. “We always went to Mass, went to confession.”
But there was a change in his faith after he graduated from high school in 2005.
“I didn’t consider myself a Catholic until I got to college,” he said.
As a freshman at St. Norbert College in De Pere, he met peers living around him. “There were a couple of guys across the dorm from me,” he said. “On the first day I walked into their room and there was a big picture of (former NFL wide receiver) Randy Moss and next to it was a picture of St. Therese of Lisieux.”
They seemed like normal guys.
“That really struck me and I think it sparked a lot of conversation between us,” said Fr. Dougherty. “And we got into a lot of arguments about the faith and what it means.”
Always the hunter, even in conversation, Fr. Dougherty would try to bait his neighbors into various debates about faith. One of the angles he argued was faith is more a matter of culture than individual choice.
“I would say, ‘Well, if you were born in India, you’d probably be a Hindu; if you were born to a Catholic family, you’d probably be a Catholic,” Fr. Dougherty said. “I kind of hit them with all those common questions that an atheist would talk to about to a Christian when they’re debating.”
He would continue his “atheist” angles during these conversations and even asked them if they thought “God is a human projection.”
“They were able to defend the faith, and they know their faith and they were passionate about it,” he said. “They didn’t have any answers that changed my life but it was seeing the pieces come together. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I really started to own my faith.”
Those conversations led Fr. Dougherty to think about the priesthood for the first time. To him, it felt like “a subtle inner call that came and went, but overall was persistent.”
“After my first semester at St. Norbert College, I came home to Waukesha and went to Mass with my parents,” Fr. Dougherty said. “I remember that it was the third or fourth week of Advent and during Communion a man sang Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria,’ and after receiving Communion, I broke down.”
The beckoning of the priesthood took hold of Fr. Dougherty.
“In fact, the calling felt so strong that I almost dropped out of college to join the seminary,” he said. “But my parents talked me out of it and I finished up my time at St. Norbert College.”
Despite this feeling, he lived a “normal” college life and even dated.
After graduating from St. Norbert, Fr. Dougherty was accepted into the graduate program at the University of Michigan to study biology.
“I fully intended on going,” he said. “But the call persisted and eventually I took a leap and joined the Norbertines.”
It’s not what people expected.
“A lot of people were surprised, especially because (I was) joining a religious order as well. I joined the Norbertines, so I’m not with the diocese at all,” Fr. Dougherty said, adding someone even told him, “I never would’ve thought you were going to be a priest.”
Even Fr. Dougherty was a bit surprised by his interest in the priesthood.
“A lot of my classmates knew they wanted to be priests since they were like 10 (years old), that was not the case with me at all,” he said. “I always wanted to be a biologist or a Steve Irwin type, crocodile hunter-type guy.”
In June 2015, he was ordained into the order at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere.
Just as hunting for him was more about being with others, the Norbertines offer that bonding experience.
“We celebrate Mass together. We eat dinner together and we recreate together,” he said. “We live in this abbey our whole lives so it becomes a place of family for us. And everything is held in common; nobody owns anything themselves.”
Fr. Dougherty lives in community with the order in Chicago and his mind harkens to his college days. “I reclaimed my faith in the midst of community,” he said. “It was a group of guys on this one floor in one of the dorms at St. Norbert College; it was hanging out with them and being with them in community … that really affected my way of understanding my faith in God.”
He hasn’t gone hunting since he moved to Chicago, but when he was in the seminary he took some of his fellow seminarians hunting.
Today, Fr. Dougherty is at Catholic Theological Union working on a Master of Arts degree in systematic theology and will be pursuing a doctorate in aquatic ecology. He hopes to return to St. Norbert College as a professor. He still has his Waukesha roots and considers St. William Parish his home parish.
Because of scheduling, Fr. Dougherty hasn’t been able to climb into tree stands as often as he’d like, but his love of nature remains.
For Fr. Dougherty it’s never been about hunting game animals, it’s always been about being with people in community, praying in peace. And, if it gets a little cold, it means fighting through those times to get to the ultimate prize.