Fr. Pat Heppe leads a moment of prayer at the Waukesha Christmas Parade Memorial during the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage on the morning of Friday, June 21. Fr. Heppe was one of 19 members of the Catholic Community of Waukesha who were injured during the attack on the parade in November 2021. (Photo by Greta Taxis)

Everyone in Waukesha knows what “the parade route” means.

It’s the stretch of Main Street in the downtown area that parallels the Fox River, populated by businesses whose names became familiar even to out-of-towners through court testimony and news reports. It’s an ordinary segment of an ordinary street in what could be any ordinary town in America. Two-and-a-half years ago, however, it was the setting of a horrific attack that sent shock waves around the world and rocked the city — and its Catholic community — to its very core.

Dozens of members of the Catholic Community of Waukesha were walking in the city’s 58th annual Christmas Parade on Nov. 21, 2021, when Darrell Brooks drove an SUV through the parade route, killing six people and injuring more than 70 others. Nineteen members of the Catholic community were injured in the attack, including Pastor Emeritus Fr. Pat Heppe.

In the years since the attack, the community has returned to the parade route more than once. “The parade route was one of those things that was, of course, desecrated by pain and death,” acknowledged Fr. Heppe. “But it’s been redeemed, you might say, in so many different ways. We’ve made it holy.”

A particularly significant moment in that journey of redemption came on the morning of Friday, June 21, when the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s Marian Route — accompanied by the priests of the Catholic Community of Waukesha and hundreds of the faithful — processed through the parade route bearing the Blessed Sacrament.

The morning began with Mass at St. William in Waukesha, where Fr. Matthew Widder said in his homily that the Eucharistic sacrifice provides the perfect context within which to understand the goodness and beauty that can come from even the most terrible evil.

The Eucharist, said Fr. Widder, is “not just a trophy you receive … but a participation in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.”

“In every Mass, that sacrifice is renewed from Calvary, and those words that Jesus spoke, he speaks to us: This is my body, given up for you. This is my blood, poured out for you,” he said. “We recognize that this is how our life must be lived.”

That sacrificial love is illustrated in the pilgrimage’s procession through the parade route, said Fr. Widder, which was not only the scene of death and trauma but of heroism and sacrifice.

“Think of the meaning of that. ‘This is my body, given up for you. This is my blood, poured out for you.’ We see that lived out so radically within the context of those events just over two years ago — people laying down their lives and sacrificing in so many different ways. What a powerful example of Eucharistic love,” he said.

Fr. Widder was present with the Catholic Community of Waukesha during the parade attack and was also called to testify at Brooks’ trial in 2022.

“And so, how fitting it is that (the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage) does go down the parade route, a place where we experienced death and heartache, but a place where we experienced the Resurrection and the fruits of the Holy Spirit poured out,” he said.

As Mass concluded, the Blessed Sacrament arrived at St. William, borne by the perpetual pilgrims who have been processing the Marian Route, which is the northern arm of the four National Eucharistic Pilgrimages taking place this summer throughout the country. All four will converge in Indianapolis on July 17 for the National Eucharistic Congress, which will run July 17-21.

More than 250 people then joined in the procession from St. William to downtown Waukesha. Among them was Valerie Winkel, a parishioner at St. Charles in Hartland who said she frequently also attends Mass at St. Joseph in Waukesha. Because of that connection to the Catholic Community of Waukesha, it was important to Winkel to be a part of this particular day.

“I just think this is such a historic event,” she said of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, as she pushed her two young children in a double stroller along the four-mile procession. “I think there’s something so special about knowing that everyone is walking from all four corners of the United States, and they’re all going to meet together, all with our same Jesus … there are so many people, tens of thousands of people, praying for healing and restoration and for evangelized hearts to come alive. I can’t wait to see all of the transformation that’s going to come because of this week (of the Marian Route being in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee) in our city, but also in these three months in the country.”

Along the procession, the faithful were led in hymns and prayers by Br. Benedict Lynch, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal who has been accompanying the Eucharistic pilgrimage since June 15.

“I think the thing I’ve been really moved by is just the joy of everybody that receives Jesus,” he said. “I think the beautiful thing is how the route goes from parish to parish. It’s so much like the Gospel, just going from town to town. You see the faith of the people at every stop and how different it is. You see the faith of the sisters who have given their lives to Jesus, and they receive him like the virgins with their lamps. And then you see the farmers that have been right there in the simple parishes out in the country that have a really deep faith. It’s the variety of the Church, but also just the deep faith in it all, in all the different varieties of the way they receive Jesus.”

When the procession reached downtown, it paused at the memorial to the victims of the Waukesha parade attack for a moment of prayer. While there, Fr. Heppe offered a reflection on the theme of resurrection and new life.

“Jesus tells us that we are to follow him, deny ourselves, pick up our cross, to carry it, proclaim his name. And I think, as we reflect on the last two-and-a-half years, this community has done a marvelous job of that,” said Fr. Heppe at the memorial. “Jesus picked up his cross. He suffered and died and three days later, after being in the tomb, he rose again from the dead. Resurrection and new life. And I think although we have seen and acknowledged the pain and the sorrow, we have seen resurrection and new life like we’ve never seen before.”