Some people called him “the motorcycle priest.”

Fr. Robert Stiefvater purchased his first motorcycle — a small Honda with a 50cc engine — at the age of 16 to ferry himself to and from his summer job. It began a love affair with the mode of transport that lasted throughout his life and even defined part of his ministry.

One of his favorite things to do with the motorcycle was to go on pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. A beloved pastoral leader in the Hispanic community of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, “Padre Roberto” and his motorcycle didn’t return home after their visit to the shrine — instead they took to the open roads of Mexico, bearing photos, money and prayers from Fr. Stiefvater’s parishioners to their families in far-flung rural towns and villages where, often, other tourists were reluctant to visit.

“He went to see my mother in Chihuahua, and gave a hug to my mom because I couldn’t go,” recalled Conchita Gonzalez, a former parishioner of Fr. Stiefvater’s at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Milwaukee. “That is one thing people will remember forever. Going through all those roads to see all those people in the middle of nowhere.”

It was emblematic of Fr. Stiefvater’s willingness to bring the Gospel to the very ends of the earth and the margins of society. “I think he liked the motorcycle because it allowed him to just head out and be with people,” said Fr. Stiefvater’s longtime friend, Fr. Michael Witczak. “He was always very open to whatever the Spirit might be moving him to do to accomplish the work of the Gospel.”

Fr. Stiefvater passed away Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, at the age of 73. The loss of “Padre Roberto” is one that is felt deeply in the many ministry settings in which he served during his 45 years of priesthood.

“He was a really faithful friend, but he was also a faithful pastor,” said Fr. Witczak. “He did so many different things during his priesthood, all focused on spreading the good news to the people of God. And he always had his eye on the people who were on the margins and had particular needs.”

Fr. Stiefvater was born Aug. 9, 1949, in Milwaukee and began his priestly formation with the Redemptorists at St. Joseph Preparatory Seminary in Edgerton and Holy Redeemer College in Waterford before deciding to become a diocesan priest. He graduated from Saint Francis de Sales Seminary School of Pastoral Ministry and was ordained to the priesthood in 1977. His background with the Redemptorists gave him a missionary foundation, which he put to good use in 1982 when he was sent to the Diocese of San Juan de la Manguana in the Dominican Republic.

“I had never experienced poverty like that or a lifestyle like that. I really think the Dominican Republic shifted the way I looked at pastoring and shifted my role as pastor,” he told the Catholic Herald in 2017. “We, being Americans, as priests, could get into governmental offices that other people couldn’t get into. I was able to open up doors that they couldn’t, and that really became part of my role as pastor, not just there but at every place I’ve worked at — I see myself empowering people.”

Fr. Stiefvater’s pastoral appointments included St. Veronica Parish in Milwaukee (1977), Holy Trinity – Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Milwaukee (1986), St. Hyacinth Parish in Milwaukee (2004), St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Milwaukee (2006), Holy Family Parish in Fond du Lac (2009) and All Saints and St. Martin de Porres parishes (2016).

He was named as the coordinator of Hispanic ministry in Walworth County in 1994, and he would spend one day a week at every parish in the county, getting to and from each on his Goldwin motorcycle. In 1996, he became the director of the office of vocations at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary; he was also named the vicar for Hispanic ministry in 2004. He retired from active ministry June 30, 2019.

“He was a beautiful pastor. He really worked hard for the Hispanic voices at St. Hyacinth to be counted,” said Martha Andrade, who worked closely with Fr. Stiefvater during his tenure as pastor at St. Hyacinth. “We were not counted until he came and opened the doors for the Hispanics. We were not on the parish council; we were not on anything. But he was a person who would fight for the rights of the people.”

“When he came to Holy Trinity of Guadalupe, the parish was in a bit of needing some direction,” said Olivia Villareal, who with her husband Ernesto Villareal were friends of Fr. Stiefvater for more than 40 years. “His administrative skills brought it out of the red financially and set up good bookkeeping procedures. But that is not as important as his skills of befriending people. He became so much of a loved pastor. He was caring of human concerns as it pertained to the Hispanic population. He cared for social justice but, at the same time, he taught us so many things regarding proper rules of the Catholic Church, with care. We never were looked down upon and the whole congregation learned so much from him.”

Fr. Robert Stiefvater