It began as an evening of “comfort and joy” — that was the theme for the 58th Annual Waukesha Christmas Parade.
But the evening of Sunday, Nov. 21, ended in horror just under an hour after the parade began, when a man driving an SUV burst through barricades along the parade route and barreled down Waukesha’s Main Street, striking marchers and attendees who included representatives of the Catholic Community of Waukesha.
As of press time, six people have died as a result of the tragedy, and dozens more were injured, including the Catholic Community of Waukesha’s Fr. Pat Heppe.
“We’re aware that parishioners are injured, we’ve been in contact with the families and that’s really all the details we can give,” said Monica Cardenas, director of stewardship and communication for the Catholic Community of Waukesha.
Cardenas said that Fr. Heppe had been hospitalized for minor injuries and released the day after the parade. Fr. Matthew Widder, the current pastor of the community’s four parishes as of September, was also present at the parade.
It was the first time the community, which includes the parishes of St. John Neumann, St. William, St. Mary and St. Joseph as well as Catholic Memorial High School (CMH) and the Waukesha Catholic School System (WCSS), had walked together in the parade, and it was supposed to be the beginning of a beautiful annual tradition, said Cardenas.
“People are walking around rather dazed. They don’t know what to do. They’re afraid,” said Fr. Chuck Wrobel, a member of the priest team serving the Catholic Community of Waukesha. “These things don’t happen here. I think people are just angry, they’re scared. These are things that happen in big cities and war zones. Even though we’ve seen disastrous things like Columbine and Sandy Hook — that was somewhere else. Now it’s here in our backyard, and it’s scary.”
The community is facing this crisis “as we face everything,” explained Donna Bembenek, president of CMH. “We face this with God, and we face this with Jesus, and we face this with prayer.”
CMH students representing the school’s sports and dance teams were walking in the parade; none of the students participating in the parade were physically injured, said Bembenek, but CMH students who were in attendance as spectators were injured, and the community as a whole is traumatized.
“The devastation runs deep,” she said. “You recognize how critically important (faith) is to help us through times there are no answers for.”
Regular Monday morning Mass at St. William Parish, usually only attended by about 50 people, drew hundreds more on Nov. 22, the day after the tragedy, said Fr. Wrobel.
“We had parishioners who were in the parade there, and there was a lot of peer support,” said Cardenas. “This is a close-knit community. (We’re) still coming to terms that this even happened. We’re still in a phase of shock and discovery. The questions right now are who’s hurt and how can I help?”
Although classes were canceled for Nov. 22 at CMH and WCSS, the buildings remained open for students who needed support, said Bembenek, and Monday morning began with staff and administration from both schools coming together to be briefed on crisis management resources available to the community.
A combined community Mass for CMH, the Waukesha Catholic School System and the Waukesha community was held on Monday at the CMH InPro Gym.
It’s just the beginning of the healing process that needs to take place, said Bembenek.
“We recognize that people grieve and process in different ways,” she said. “We know this is not a one-day need. This is going to be a long-term need for our community, and we want to make sure we have the right resources for employees, for our students, for our students’ families.”
Bembenek added that CMH has been “getting calls from alumni all over the country” who have heard about the tragedy.
“They’re devastated because of the great, close-knit community that Waukesha is, and the love for this community that extends well beyond graduation,” she said.
One of those alumni is Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly, who formerly served on the CMH Board of Directors. In a press conference at Waukesha City Hall on Nov. 22, Reilly, who was also a participant in the Nov. 21 parade, emphasized the unity of Waukesha in the wake of this “horrible, senseless tragedy.”
“For those of you who do not live in Waukesha, you need to know that Waukesha is a community that helps its neighbors,” he said. “Waukesha looks after each other.”
Facilitating that unity is the best thing the Catholic Community of Waukesha can do at the moment, said Fr. Wrobel.
“People need God, and they need him right now, and we need to help them to see that he’s here. Them coming together … I believe that is one of the most healing things that can happen,” he said.
“We’re together, we’re lifting each other up in prayer — and not just our parishioners but this whole community,” said Cardenas, who noted that the parish of St. Joseph in particular has been a cornerstone of Waukesha life for 176 years.
“Whether or not people are actually Catholic, they’ve been impacted by our churches and our organizations,” she said. “And so we care for all of them at this point.”
‘Hundreds of people made selfless decisions’
It’s a family tradition for Maria Notch, her husband Jacob and their two children to set up camp outside her mother-in-law’s store in downtown Waukesha to watch the annual Christmas parade. That’s where Notch, who works at St. Charles Parish in Hartland as the small group ministry coordinator, found herself on Sunday, Nov. 21, bundled up against the wind, shouting greetings to friends she recognized walking in the parade as part of the Catholic Community of Waukesha contingent.
“It was just like any other fun family parade,” said Notch. “Until it wasn’t.”
The Catholic Community of Waukesha group had just passed by her family, said Notch, and she heard shouts of “No!” “Don’t!” and “Stop!”
“We could see this car barreling down the parade route,” she said. “Right in front of us, it veered up and over the opposite curb from where we were sitting — just plowing people over. I looked down to grab my children and by the time I had them in my arms and looked back up, I could see the car continuing down the parade route. The last thing I saw was him headed straight toward the Waukesha Catholic group (members), who were walking and had their backs to us.”
As soon as she had secured her children’s safety with the rest of their family members, Notch and her husband — a firefighter who is completing his EMT certification — headed back out into the street to render aid.
What they found when they got there, she said, was “panic, mass hysteria — and countless people helping.”
For hours, the Notches worked alongside strangers to help stabilize the wounded until they could be transported to the hospital.
“Honestly, it was incredibly encouraging that goodness still exists in humanity, and that God is still present and working even amidst such a tragedy,” she said. “It was beautiful to see that despite one person’s awful decision that day, that there were hundreds of people (who) made incredibly selfless decisions that day.”
She wants the families of the deceased to know that their loved ones were not alone. “There were countless people out on those streets who were praying for those wounded, as well as administering aid, and praying over the deceased as well,” she said. “That was something that was very powerful for me to witness. Even as the night was winding down and the wounded were being transported off of the scene, I saw a nurse, a woman who I was partnered up with for a while throughout the night — as she was leaving the scene she stopped and knelt down by the bodies of the deceased and prayed over them.”
As she grapples with the trauma of what she has witnessed, Notch said that she has been comforted by two Scripture verses in particular — Romans 8:28 and Psalm 34:18.
“The first is that God promises to work all things for the good of those who love him. That means he’s even going to bring goodness out of something that’s tragic and awful and absurd, that he can still work and bring goodness amidst that tragedy,” she said. “And the other one is that the Lord is near to the brokenhearted. I just keep reminding myself that God doesn’t will bad things to happen to his people — this is the effect of sin in the world, and someone making a sinful decision, but that God comforts his people, and he is near to the brokenhearted.”
‘Jesus weeps with Waukesha’
The Catholic Community of Waukesha gathered at St. William on the evening of Nov. 22 for a bilingual prayer service, where pastor Fr. Matthew Widder acknowledged that no one present was “where we thought we were going to be when we woke up yesterday morning.”
“With our own trauma, we come here, and we all bring people with us who we are praying for — people who are still recovering,” he said. “We bring those prayers with us here today. The whole world prays with us, in some sense.”
Reflecting on the Gospel reading where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Fr. Widder said that, in times of crisis and sorrow, “we ask that three-letter word. We ask why.”
“In the gospel, we heard that question asked in a subtle way,” he said. “Martha and Mary’s brother had just died and they look at Jesus and say, ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ The question they are asking is why.”
And the response of Jesus, Fr. Widder pointed out, was “not with words but with an action, and an action that pierces deep into their hearts. ‘And Jesus wept.’”
Here, Jesus acknowledges that so often, words are not sufficient to express the depth of a feeling, said Fr. Widder.