Catholic Community of Waukesha Pastoral Council Chair Jason Pechloff chats with friends and fellow parishioners after a prayer service at St. Joseph Church marking the one-year anniversary of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy Monday, Nov. 21. Pechloff was among those who sustained injuries during the parade. (Photo by Kristen Kubisiak)
Jesus Christ is the light that will not be shut out — in fact, in the face of tragedy, his light only shines brighter: This was the message Tina Gutierrez shared with those gathered for a prayer service at St. Joseph Catholic Church on Monday, Nov. 21.
The date marked the one-year anniversary of the Waukesha Christmas Parade attack, when Darrell Brooks drove an SUV into the parade, killing six people and injuring dozens of others. The service at St. Joseph started in silence. Then, at 4:39 p.m. — the moment when the SUV burst through barricades along the parade route — the church tolled its bells to commemorate the lives lost in the tragedy.
Fr. Matthew Widder, pastor of the four-parish Catholic Community of Waukesha, listed the names of those who were killed: Lee Owen, Tamara Durand, Virginia Sorenson, Jackson Sparks, Jane Kulich and Wilhelm Hospel.
Gutierrez was one of two parade tragedy survivors from the Waukesha Catholic Community to speak at the service. She was joined by Pastoral Council Chair Jason Pechloff, who sustained injuries in the attack.
“I remember waking up on the ground,” Pechloff said. “At first, I thought I tripped or fell and I passed out. I didn’t have feeling in my legs. I remember praying to myself, ‘God please give me the ability to walk again’ … and he did.”
It was Pechloff’s wife who explained to him what had happened.
“For the next six hours, I asked the same questions every few minutes: What happened? Where are the girls? Was the community hurt?” he said. “I cried a lot that night.”
Gutierrez was walking in the parade with her son and husband, along with other family members. Her husband was badly hurt and has had two surgeries since. Fr. Patrick Heppe, pastor emeritus, was also injured.
The story of Lazarus in the Gospel of John was chosen for the prayer service immediately following the tragedy, and again a year later for a very specific purpose, Fr. Widder said. Last year, the focus of the Gospel was the verse “And Jesus Wept.”
“The Lord is moved to tears by the death of his best friend Lazarus,” Fr. Widder said. “The Lord is moved to tears by the situation in Waukesha. Sometimes silence and tears is the only way healing comes, so we focus on that reality as we think back to a year ago at this time.”
This year, Fr. Widder drew the attention of those gathered to the end of the Gospel, when Jesus speaks to Lazarus and says, “Come out.”
“He allows us to feel the depths of the same pain that he felt as he wept, but he also says, ‘come out,’ or begin again,” Fr. Widder said. “So that is what we do now. Let us begin again.”
Even as Pechloff and Gutierrez navigated the months, and medical challenges, that followed — Pechloff for himself and Gutierrez for her husband — both found their faith was only deepened by the experience.
“God was guiding and consoling me every day in the coming months,” Pechloff said. “I felt the constant presence of prayers being sent to me and am grateful for everyone doing so. God was there for me and my family. I’ve learned that God cares for every detail in my life. I can rely on him, and he will send angels when I am down.”
Angels, for Pechloff, took many forms, including those from the Waukesha Catholic Community who offered medical support, care and ministering in the aftermath of his injuries.
Gutierrez recalled that in the hours before the parade, she had been looking for a light to hold — like a candle or a lamp — something that could symbolize the light of Christ and send a message to Waukesha.
“Jesus Christ is the light of our lives,” she said. “Without him, we are nothing; we have nothing.”
During the months following the tragedy, Gutierrez said God was with them every single moment — and she will accept Jesus’ invitation to “Come Out” as he told Lazarus.
“I am going to walk in the parade again,” she said. “I am going to finish that walk, and I am going to send the same message: Jesus Christ, my God, is the light of my life.”