ST. PAUL, Minnesota — On Facebook, he is “The Rosary Guy.” At home, he is Matt Wiederkehr, 89, of St. Genevieve Parish in Centerville.
And from the 1960s into the 2000s, this former mechanical engineer was a pioneering national and international hot air balloonist who got his start at balloon races held during the St. Paul Winter Carnival in St. Paul. He conducted public relations tours and appearances for Coca-Cola Co.; set world records for distance, duration and altitude; and led safety classes and seminars.
Always with a rosary in his pocket.
Wiederkehr and his wife, Bobbie, and their daughters, Donna and Denise, believe his devotion to Mary and her son, Jesus, has seen him through illnesses that nearly killed him, his four years in the Navy in Japan and Korea during the Korean War, and his many adventures.
Now, he wants people to know about a special kind of rosary, the “Rosary of the Seven Sorrows of Mary,” made with beads for 52 Hail Marys and seven Our Fathers. A traditional rosary has 53 Hail Marys and six Our Fathers.
In May, the month of Mary, Wiederkher and his family had two statues of the Lady of Kibeho from Kibeho, Rwanda, they gave away to two parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The rosary and the statue are tied closely together, the Wiederkehrs said, by faith and by appearances Mary is said to have made in Kibeho from 1981 to 1989.
The Seven Sorrows rosary, which marks the sorrows of Mary including the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and Mary at the foot of the cross, dates to the Middle Ages. But it was particularly encouraged by Mary in her appearances to several young adults in Kibeho. Many people familiar with those appearances believe one of the visions warned about the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
Stories about Mary’s appearances in Kibeho and their significance — approved as worthy of belief by the Vatican in 2001 — were carried to Wiederkehr about 10 years ago by his daughter Donna, who for the last 13 years has helped orphans in Rwanda, when she isn’t working in advertising in New York or traveling to other parts of the world.
“One of Mary’s messages was to have people learn about the Seven Sorrows rosary,” Donna said. “When I told Dad that, it became his ‘job.’ We want to tell people about this rosary.”
In late 2017, Wiederkehr and members of his family began a live Facebook recitation alternating among the traditional rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet and Seven Sorrows rosary, as close to 5:30 p.m. and as often each week as they can. It’s titled “The Rosary Guy.” About 300 people generally key into each live recitation, and the prayerful time ultimately is “liked” and shared by thousands, Donna said.
The Wiederkehr family believes devotion to the rosary, and Mary’s call in particular to the Seven Sorrows rosary, can change people’s lives.
“It’s not saying the rosary, it’s praying the rosary, and this will change your life,” Donna said.
Wiederkehr’s willingness to publicly express his devotion to Mary stems from the kind of single-minded focus he once applied to hot air ballooning, fishing and other interests, Donna said. He’s something of a celebrity in the world of hot air balloons, and was inducted into the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame in 2012 by the Balloon Federation of America at the National Balloon Museum in Indianola, Iowa. His daughters, too, have set world records in hot air ballooning.
To share their faith story, Wiederkehr, his wife, and Donna visited this spring with Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who is familiar with the Seven Sorrows devotion from its use in the parish in Pittsburgh where he grew up.
Telling people about the rosary over the last several years has become so paramount a priority for Wiederkehr that he continued to proselytize after being hospitalized in April, and later going into rehab, for pneumonia in both lungs and other complications.
While he was at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul — and with the help of his family by his side — Wiederkehr told his story to The Catholic Spirit, archdiocesan newspaper of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Prayer, they believe, saved Wiederkehr when he nearly died from an illness as a teenager. And when he nearly died of sepsis after an infection 12 years ago. The family is convinced he lived in part to tell the world about the Seven Sorrows rosary.
“All his organs shut down, except the heart,” Donna said of the sepsis that struck her father. “It was the heart that beat for Jesus.”
As Donna travels back from her work with orphans in Rwanda, she sometimes brings statues of Our Lady of Kibeho, each about 4 feet tall.
About four years ago, they gave a statue to St. Genevieve. It is inside the church, to the right of the sanctuary, said Esty, pastor.
“I was delighted to have that as a gift to the parish,” Esty said, describing the Wiederkehrs as longtime, faith-filled members of the parish.
The family encourages every parish to have their congregations pray the rosary before or after celebrating any Mass, or at least once a week as a community.
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Ruff is news editor of the Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
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