On Friday, February 16, the Diocese of Gallup learned that Fr. Robert Mathieu was killed in a car accident in Albuquerque. He had been turning into a busy intersection when an other vehicle struck his car on the driver’s side.
Fr. Mathieu was the pastor at Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Snowflake, Arizona, a position he had only held for a few months. He had previously served in many other assignments throughout the Diocese, as pastor in Bloomfield and Blanco, NM, Grants NM, and as the spiritual advisor for a number of religious groups.
He had always wanted his funeral to be held at his last assignment, to be buried in the town he served. And on February 27, hundreds gathered for a final time for his funeral service in Snowflake, Arizona.
Mary Christensen was Fr. Mathieu’s younger sister, one of his 11 siblings. She visited Fr. Mathieu – “Bob”, she calls him – several times, and for this final visit, recalls the vast numbers of people who came to the funeral. Our Lady of the Snows, a modest parish, was filled to standing-room-only capacity. Hundreds more spilled over into the nearby parish center, watching the service on a livestream.
“I remember someone saying to me that they were expecting 300 people and they were nervous about having enough food, and I offered some money,” she recalls. “And they said ‘back East, that’s the way you do it, but we cook. We’re happy to do that here.’ They told me at the end it was probably close to 600 people and I noticed there was extra food and it brought the story of the fishes and the loaves to me. Like wow, God really did provide for everybody. That was really special.”
It wasn’t simply the suddenness of Fr. Mathieu’s death, but his long experience in the Diocese and network of relationships, built through the years, that brought people. Fran Palochak, a city councilor in Gallup, NM, grew to know Fr. Mathieu through the local Cursillo program, where he served as a spiritual advisor.
“I found him to be, just a very personable – a very very nice person. He would joke around with us,” she remembered. “But then when he would speak at the weekends, to the ladies, you could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit, because he was so spirit filled. He was always encouraging us to be Apostles for the Lord.”
In particular, his teachings about the sanctity of the Mass have stuck with her for years.
“I remember one time we were in Mass and he was explaining the consecration of gifts. And he told us ‘you have to remember that with Jesus there is no time. There is no beginning, there is no end, there’s no time difference. So when I consecrate the gifts, this is just like Jesus telling the Apostles “this is my body that will be given for you” so when you see me or anyone else consecrating the gifts, always remember that’s Jesus telling you.’ And every time I see the consecration of the gifts I remember that so well. That stuck with me forever.”
Fr. Mathieu grew up in the Boston area, the oldest of twelve children. From an early age, he knew he wanted to be a priest. By the time Christensen was in high school, he had entered the seminary, and was ordained the same week she graduated. The ten-year difference between them meant that Christensen was a willing participant in many of her big brother’s games.
“When he was in high school and we were younger kids, he would ‘practice’ with us. He kind of had that calling when he was younger and he would buy Necco wafers and he would practice giving communion to us. And we actually didn’t mind, because it was candy, you know?”
And after the funeral, on each and every table where people gathered in the parish community center for a shared meal, Fr. Mathieu’s siblings placed a roll of Necco wafers, a callback to their childhood game, now shared with Fr. Mathieu’s parishioners.
Fr. Mathieu originally only meant to serve in the Gallup Diocese for three years. But despite the distance from family and the East Coast, he soon came to think of the Southwest as his home. He would still visit his parents and brothers and sisters. He married two of his siblings and baptized their children. But always, he returned to the Diocese of Gallup.
Christensen recalls traveling to visit him.
“I came when he was in Page, Arizona many years ago, and then for the 25th [anniversary] in Springerville, and then for his 40th [ordination anniversary] in Grants, just two years ago. The people just loved him and always said how happy he was, and we loved hearing all the stories about how he touched different peoples’ lives, because, you know he was special to us.”
Although she was unable to attend the funeral, Palochak believes it was a good service for priest she came to know and appreciate.
“He truly loved Jesus. He truly loved the church. And I think that he – because he was our spiritual director, he brought many women to Jesus. And for that, I think we are more faithful than we would have been otherwise had we not known him,” she said. “I think he would have been very humbled to see the beautiful send off that was given to him.”
Christensen, too, is making her peace with the loss of her brother.
“Being so far away from home wasn’t always easy for him, but he loved the Lord so much. I like to think that he was ready. He was always happy, you know?” she said. “Some of us thought that when Bobby got a little older he might come back, but he decided to stay out that way to retire. He really had found a place there.”
Fr. Mathieu’s Siblings Recall Fond Memories
“I remember when I was ready to get my drivers license…Bob would take me out driving in his green Thunderbird and teach me how to drive. He was very patient.
“Also…I visited him several times staying in the rectory on a few occasions. Once with my sister Bea in Winslow and another time in Page,Arizona with Roberta.. People would stop by and just loved to be around him. In Page we went out in a boat on Lake Powell.Rainbow Bridge, It was beautiful! Everywhere we went, everyone knew and loved him. Also on that trip we drove to Las Vegas. Bob said ‘Don’t worry, it’s not too far’. About 4 hours later we arrived!
“My brother Bob appreciated everything he had and never complained about anything.
“My husband & I were so proud to have Bob marry us and to baptize our 2 daughters.”
“As a priest, Father Bob touched so many people, as a spiritual director, performing sacraments, and guiding them in their journey. As a brother, he was one of us, just Bobby. He never missed sending a birthday card, Christmas card or thank you note.”
“I visited him when he was in Springerville and stayed with him in the Rectory. At Mass when he told the congregation that his sister was visiting, so many people came up to me after and treated me like I was a celebrity!
“We took a trip to the Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon, stopping on the way to visit the Madonna House. Also stayed overnight near Flagstaff, he in the Rectory and I with some friends of his who loved him so and treated me as if I were their own daughter. It was on that trip that I fell in love with the Southwest.
“He was so laid back and easy-going – never really got angry.
“When he came home to visit he’d always say Mass at our home parish – I loved hearing him speak.”
“I would like to mention how nice it was to have a priest in the family and how special it was to have Fr. Bob able to marry, baptize and give special blessings to all of us and our children. I remember the time at his 25th Anniversary when we were at the Grand Canyon and Nick (I think he was 6 or 7) went and knocked on Bobby’s door first thing in the morning to ask him for a blessing. Bobby reminded us of that several times as Nick has grown.
“Also, the special masses he would have for us in the living room at Dad & Mom’s and at Church whenever he was home. He would have some of us participate by doing the readings. Dad & Mom loved that!”
“As a boy Bob would practice saying Mass in the attic where he had a dresser set up as his altar table. Mike & Tom were his altar servers, and later it was Leo & Joe. And as you know the rest of us would ‘go to Communion’ where he gave us Necco wafers.
“Bobby became a priest on June 12,1976 and moved to Winslow, AZ that summer. In September of that year, a girlfriend and I moved to Albuquerque. We were 25 year-olds who were looking for a new experience and direction in our lives. Being in driving distance to Bobby, we had many visits with one another. I remember turning to him in times of loneliness and the quiet strength he showed in helping me deal with being so far from home in Massachusetts.
“Our parents came out to the Southwest at that time and together Bob and I took them on car tours of Santa Fe and the area where Archbishop Lamy had served as a missionary priest from France in the 1800’s. Bob loved it when family members came to visit.
“We were often amazed at the humble parishes where he worked and could see how much he loved the people and culture of the Southwest. Bob had told us that the agreement he made with the Bishop of New Mexico was for three years of service. When that time came, he did not want to leave the area. He gave up the comfort of being close to his family in the East and built a new home for himself among the people he wished to serve.
“My husband, three children and I have a home outside of Boston where the Charles River courses through our back yard. When Bobby would be East on summer vacation we would get him to come over and would convince him to grab a paddle and canoe on the river with us.
“He was not that comfortable in a tippy canoe, but would always join in with a smile on his face and a chuckle over the experience.
“For Bob’s 25th Anniversary as a priest, which was held in Springerville, my three children were lucky to be able to travel out to Arizona with my husband, myself and other family members for the event. Our children had the experience of seeing where their uncle lived and worked and the devotion he had for helping the people he served. That next school year our then 16 year old daughter had an assignment to write about a ‘hero’ in her life and she chose her uncle, Father Bob. It meant a lot to me (and to him) that his work and life choice had moved her that much. He became much more than fun Uncle Bobby.”