In the Shadows of an Old Church

Michael J. Matt
Editor, The Remnant

The founder of this newspaper, Walter L. Matt, has passed away. He died at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul on April 21, 2002, at the age of 87. I had actually anticipated that I would know precisely how to write this brief tribute to him by now, several weeks after his passing; but, alas, I scarcely know where to begin. Ever since his passing, there’s been a certain sense that we’re all going through the motions of being in mourning, but that the great man is not really gone at all. Certainly death comes to us all, but the passing of some men becomes so unthinkable after awhile that one almost comes to regard the prospect of it as an absurdity.

This is how it was for me with respect to my father. Larger than life in so many ways, he was the ever-present institution upon which many of us leaned heavily, even up until the very end. In fact, this will be the first editorial I’ve ever written that will not have received his approval before going to press. Even in advanced years, he oversaw his little Remnant and his growing family as best he could, as the constraints of old age and declining health did their best to sidetrack him. Even from his wheelchair in his housebound condition, I don’t think it ever crossed his mind to give up the fight.

And now he’s gone, and now there’s that odd absence in our lives where once a great presence had been. Will I miss my father? “Miss” is not a big enough word. I fear going on without him. I don’t deceive myself—I could never adequately fill his shoes as a Catholic journalist and defender of the holy Faith. As I see it, I’ll go on chasing after him as best I can, but I’ll never truly replace him. Such a great man could never be eclipsed by such an ordinary one. And so the memory of his wisdom, his faith, his courage, his devotion, his humility, his Catholic sense will for a time have to light the path for the rest of us, even if he himself is no longer here to walk beside us and show us the way. Yes, I’ll miss him. For the rest of my life, I’ll miss my father.

His Life

The notable milestones along the road of my father’s life may not reveal greatness as the world defines the word, but this does not mean that Walter Matt wasn’t a great man. His greatness was derived not so much out of his inventiveness or even creativity, but rather out of the singular constant of his life—his profound sense of duty. When his country called in 1942, he went to war for her. When his father and mother were in need in their later years, he cared for them well beyond the call of an ordinary dutiful son. When his Church came under attack, he went up against the whole world to defend her. When God called him to marriage late in life (he was 38), my father didn’t flinch. He was so generous and open to life that soon he was surrounded by nine children.

Did he retreat from any of these responsibilities? No, indeed he didn’t. He was a decorated soldier and a veteran of World War II; he was chosen by his father (even over his older brothers) to carry on the family apostolate as editor of The Wanderer; against all odds, he stood strong against the New Mass until the old one was returned. When principle went head-to-head with his birthright, principle won and, without money or even a mailing list and with seven little children in tow, his Remnant was born. To him, none of this was heroism; it was only his duty as a Catholic, a patriot, a son and a father. Because he did not aspire to greatness, he became great; because he was ever humble, he couldn’t recognize his own greatness and thus never fell victim to pride; and because he loved without condition, he was unconditionally loved by all who knew him.

My father was born on February 8, 1915. He was born to German immigrant parents, Joseph and Marie Matt. Joseph Matt would become one of America’s premier Catholic editors. Heading up the German Der Wanderer from 1899 to 1954, he also found time to establish The Wanderer in 1931. An accomplished linguist, historian and philosopher, Joseph Matt was made a papal Knight of St. Gregory. During the war, he was a fierce opponent of Nazism and Communism, so much so, in fact, that The Wanderer brought down the wrath of both Hilter and Pravda at the same time. In the January 16th 1964 issue of The Wanderer, my grandfather explained how it had been during the war. He wrote:

Then, too, the rise of Hitlerism in Germany and the responsibility of keeping our readers in Germany and Austria as well as in America informed of the dangers inherent in this radical movement and its reckless "Fuehrer" was a further reason to keep our German publications intact for the time being. Hitler and his cohorts were only too well aware of the unyielding opposition of the Wanderer, and, in point of fact, ours was one of the first publications outside Germany to be forbidden in the Hitler Reich and in countries occupied later on. We had at that time about three thousand readers of our annual Wanderer-Kalender [almanac, which Joseph Matt had founded in 1902].

This loss was, of course, a severe blow to a small business. Nevertheless, even to this day the lie is occasionally circulated that the Wanderer is a "Nazi paper." Several years ago a big radio advertiser [the actor, Orson Welles] had to pay damages for circulating the same lie when we took our case to court. Shortly afterwards, the official Communist Russian organ, Pravda, tried to prevail on our Government to suppress the Wanderer because of its intransigent anti-Communist position, and this, in fact, seems to indicate the chief source of the continuing propaganda against our paper.

In the same issue, Joseph Matt introduced the new editor of The Wanderer:

In June 1899, I became editor of The Wanderer.... After sixty-six years of uninterrupted service, I decided last summer that the state of my health warranted at least a partial retirement. The question of a successor offered no problem. My three sons have been my loyal co-workers for many years. Walter, my successor as editor, was a part-time worker even as a student at the College of St. Thomas and entered the Wanderer as an editorial assistant after his graduation from St. Thomas in 1938. In the Second World War, he spent almost three years in Palestine, Egypt, North Africa and Italy, where he was awarded the Bronze Star for distinguished service. He is well-informed, has a good knowledge of the German language, and is a conscientious journalist. He is married and the father of six children.

My father served with the U.S. Armed Forces (in the Middle East, Africa, Italy) from June 1942 until May 1945. He worked as a German translator and was awarded the Army Bronze Star for his work with U.S. Intelligence and Army Public Relations during that war. He moonlighted as a foreign correspondent for The Wanderer throughout the war years.

In 1964, he was appointed Editor of The Wanderer by his father. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council ended and, just as it began to spread division throughout the whole world, it successfully divided the Matt family very soon thereafter. Viewing the Council (and especially the collegiality that grew out of it) and the prospect of a New Mass as disastrous for the Church, my father left The Wanderer and founded The Remnant in 1967. At that time, he had seven children. His year-old baby at the time is now the present Editor of The Remnant.

Thus was founded what was to become the uncontested flagship of the traditional Catholic movement in the United States.

In 1972, my father’s good friend, Father Harry Marchosky, introduced him to a promising young Welsh writer from London by the name of Michael Davies. Those Americans who’ve benefited over the years from the excellent books and articles written by Mr. Davies have Mr. Matt to thank for it. He introduced Mr. Davies to American Catholic readers through his fledgling Remnant and maintained an alliance with him for the next thirty years.

In 1976, Walter Matt received a letter from a certain French archbishop who was making headlines throughout the world for standing against the Council and the New Mass. The archbishop asked to publicly meet with The Remnant’s team here in St. Paul. My father enthusiastically arranged that historic meeting. The archbishop’s name was Marcel Lefebvre, and my father used the occasion to introduce American Catholics to the heroic churchman. He supported Monsignor Lefebvre at a time when it was most unpopular to do so. The Remnant did a great deal to support Archbishop Lefebvre as he began to build his priestly enclaves here in the States.

Over the years, my father collaborated with such notables as Hamish Fraser, Michael Davies, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Solange Hertz, Father Vincent Micelli, Father Marchosky, Father James Dunphy, Father Urban Snyder, Father Lawrence Brey, Father Vincent Schneider, Dr. William Marra, Arnaud de Lassus, Neil McCaffrey, Malachi Martin and so many respected writers, journalists and priests who saw the Council and the introduction of the New Mass for what they were— calamitous events in the Catholic Church!

My father used to refer to himself as a “pick and shovel” editor. He didn’t reinvent the wheel. He just chained himself to the traditional Catholic Faith and never let go. He was a journalist whose every line demonstrated that he was a Catholic who lived in the world but not of it. He didn’t care what the world thought of him; he only cared what God thought. He was a man who called a spade a spade no matter who was using it to bury God.

His Death

There is so much more I could say about my father’s long career in the Catholic press apostolate, much of which he’d delete if he were still here to read proof copy. He’d say that what I want to say about him is too personal. He’d be right again. So, out of respect for him—the accomplished journalist and editor—I will pay tribute to my father’s life by simply reporting on his death. I can think of no better gift to provide my father’s friends and readers than to try to pass along an accurate account of his inspiring passing.

Longtime readers of this paper will recall that one of my father’s favorite scriptural passages was one that came from the divine lips of Our Lord Himself: “I will be with you always, even unto the consummation of the world.” Those who encircled the deathbed of Walter Matt saw that promise quietly carried out for the benefit of a loyal soldier of Jesus Christ.

I suppose all of us wonder sometimes if we’re right…if we’ve been right all these years…to resist the modern orientation of the Church, to leave our parishes, to criticize our bishops, to object even to the prudential decisions of the recent popes themselves. I don’t doubt that my father struggled with those same demons at times. All his life, he based his Catholic action almost entirely on the encyclicals and social teachings of the great popes of his day. It’s hard to describe how terribly difficult it was for Walter Matt to take issue with a Roman pontiff as he was forced to do in the face of papal novelties and experimentation after Vatican II.

But in his death, we witnessed what I truly believe was the unmistakable endorsement of the lonely stand in defense of the Church that my father took so many years ago. At each stage of his passing there was this sense that close by, just beyond human perception perhaps, angels were passing along the heavenly message that all good Catholics hope to hear on their deathbeds: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

From a Catholic point of view, my father’s passing could not have been scripted any better.

So, here is my simple report on the last two weeks in the life of Walter Matt.

Two weeks before he died, he fell over backwards from his wheelchair in his living room. I got the call from my mother to come quickly, and I found him lying on the floor with a pillow under his head. He was patiently looking out his window as he waited for help to come. He chuckled as I came in and said something about the fine mess that he’d gotten himself into this time. I picked him up and set him back in his chair.

“Are you all right, Dad?” I asked.

“I think so. But, how’s about a cigarette?”

My father smoked a pipe for the past 35 years. But in the last few months the little bowl full of burning tobacco proved somewhat problematic, especially as far as my mother’s furniture and carpet were concerned. So, he’d occasionally “sneak” cigarettes when he figured he could get away with it.

I lit up a “nail” for him, and we talked for the next hour. He was happy, and in good spirits.

“I’ve got to go, Pop.” I said at last, “but I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay, Mike,” he responded, before saying those words which I’d heard from him a hundred thousand times over the course of my life: “God bless you.”

Those were the last words I heard him say.

The next day, just after enjoying a nice lunch with my mother, he quite suddenly and without much fuss had a massive stroke.

The ambulance came and, for whatever reason (still no one knows why), they took him to St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. This was not his hospital. His doctor didn’t even go to that hospital. At first we tried everything we could think of to get him transferred out of St. Joseph’s, since his doctor wasn’t there. But, incredibly, all our efforts were in vain. St Joseph’s is one of the last Catholic hospitals in St. Paul. The hospital chaplains still dress like priests, and night prayers are still read by a Catholic nun over the hospital’s public address system each evening. Inside those halls, which are adorned with crucifixes and life-size statues of St. Joseph, one can almost pretend that Vatican II never happened. This was the place my father went to die.

As I say, we just couldn’t transfer him out of St. Joseph’s, but, strangely enough (or maybe not), a very orthodox Catholic doctor took my father as his patient.

My father was declining rapidly. He could communicate still, but not through speech, and he was paralyzed on the right side of his body. After a day or so, he showed no signs of coming out of the stroke-induced paralysis. And so, ever so tentatively, the deathwatch began, though many of us were still presuming that the “old timer” would bounce back again as he’d done so many times in recent years. The unpleasant debate over feeding tubes, I.V. antibiotics, meds, hospice care, etc., went on for days. Carefully following the Church’s teachings on these questions, however, the good doctor, with the advice of half a dozen priests, did everything he could to save my father’s life and to give him enough time to recover from the stroke, if it was God’s will that he should do so. But my father was dying—he knew it long before the rest of us could face it. He knew it and my mother knew it, but she still did everything possible—including approving the insertion of a feeding tube—to give him every chance.

After a week, the doctor recommended that my father leave St. Joseph’s and go into a nursing home. He was transferred out of the hospital, but as soon as he arrived at that nursing home, he had a near fatal incident. He was rushed back to St. Joseph’s. We didn’t know it then, but death was only a few days away, and I think my father had some pretty clear ideas about where he wanted to wage his final battle. The vigils began then in earnest. His nine children worked in shifts, staying through the night with my mother, his constant deathbed companion. He was never alone.

The traditional priest who was called is an old and dear friend who my father knew well from the days before he was ordained, when he used to help run the printing presses at the old Remnant office back in the 1970s. This priest (Father David Belland) was like a loyal son to my father, and he came often to the deathbed. He administered Extreme Unction to him and gave him absolution several times before he died. My father’s soul was being well prepared for departure.

The days lagged on, each one bringing more signs that death was drawing nearer. The shallow breaths and the lack of real responsiveness were stark reminders that we hadn’t much time. By the end, he was only able to smile with his eyes and squeeze our hands in response to questions. Like one of General MacArthur’s old soldiers, he was just fading away; but there was no fear, no anxiety; just peaceful waiting between extended periods of blessed sleep.

His faithful priest came again and gave him absolution once more. I came into his room that afternoon and found him awake and looking out his window at the city where he’d been born and in which he’d worked most of his life. Directly outside his window, perhaps a hundred feet removed, the twin spires of the Church of the Assumption were in plain view. It was his favorite church, and it’s where he’d attended daily Mass for so many years while he worked at The Wanderer. Like a special gift from God, the beautiful stone church remained constantly in his line of vision as he prepared to leave the world. (Inside that church, there remains the high altar, parts of the Communion rail, the old confessionals, all of the old statutes that had been there years ago when my father was young. The church remains unchanged because it is a historical site, protected by the Historical Society. Vatican II and the liturgical “experts” had no luck destroying it.)

Like an old friend’s salutation, the Assumption’s Angelus bells rang out every day at noon and at six across from my father’s third floor hospital room. It was as if the church was announcing the passing of a faithful son. He was dying literally in the shadow of the church he knew so well.

With nine children coming and going at all hours of the day and night, there were many, many rosaries prayed during this time. At the foot of his bed, a statue of Our Lady had been carefully set up. A rosary hung from his bed apparatus above his head throughout the ordeal. The black crucifix that had for years stood at his desk in The Remnant’s old office was now at his bedside. If appearances mean anything, and in this case they certainly do, the room was set for a Catholic ritual…the ritual was death. Everything about the room suggested the same thing: a Catholic was arming himself for the final conflict.

The wait continued until time itself became sort of meaningless and blurred. Always the teaching father, he waited patiently for every little rift and misunderstanding that had existed between his nine children to be totally obliterated. He held on until everyone who knew and loved him was at total peace with everyone else because of him. Grace became almost palpable during that deathwatch. Things were happening. Forgiveness and hope and respect and honor and love and grief and prayer and tears and death combined to create a holy atmosphere that defies description.

The night before he died, his nine children and their spouses, and even some of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, gathered around him. They talked and shared stories with him; they prayed and read litanies and prayers for the dying. And as the hour grew late, they sang quiet hymns to their beloved father, who’d taught them the beauty of every aspect of the holy Faith. Panis Angelicus, Ecce Panis Angelorum, Adoramus te Christe…the strains of the old Catholic hymns filled his room and the hallway beyond with a sweet Catholic calm that evoked tears even in the eyes of his nurses. Quietly, the old man waited on death, while his grief-stricken children sang him to sleep.

Ever so gradually, my father’s condition worsened over the next day. By the following evening, a seasoned hospice nurse (and a Catholic) told my mother that it was time. The moment had come to say goodbye. And so we did. One by one, as the rest prayed, each of his children whispered final words in his ear, realizing fully that they spoke more to his soul then than to his failing body. Then the spouses of his children took their turns just before his grandchildren kissed him and said goodbye. Time was running out.

As death took hold of my father, there was nothing save profound peace written on his face.

“Go forth, Christian soul,” we prayed together. Some of my sisters wept, my brother and I stood beside him and tried to lead the prayers for the dying one more time before he slipped away, and my mother stoically held my father’s hand and stroked the brow of her faithful husband of forty-eight years, who, there on the bed before her, was breathing his last. Her hero and her champion was fighting his greatest battle. It was her job to stay loyally at his side for as long as she could. And she never faltered.

Around 12:45 early Sunday morning, my father went to sleep quietly and peacefully. It was my holy privilege to have my hand resting on his shoulder when he took his last breath. I didn’t cry for him at that point. I was too overwhelmed by the magnificence of grace that had so clearly been showered on that gentle soul. There he lay surrounded by his children, in the arms of his beloved wife, with the faintest trace of a smile on his lips. In his hands he’d been clutching a rosary and his crucifix—even in death, his hands refused to release them. Before his eyes was the statue of Our Lady and her rosary. He had received the last rites and had been absolved of his sins by a Catholic priest. He closed his eyes forever with his brown scapular around his neck.

There just didn’t seem to be any reason to cry.

The burning sense of loss and sadness at his absence having not yet set in that night, I felt an unexpected elation there beside the deathbed of my father. He’d died like a saint. His death was what every good Catholic prays for— a happy one. Why was he at St. Joseph’s hospital? No one could answer that, except that my father had had a lifelong devotion to the spouse of Our Lady and the Patron of the Happy Death— St. Joseph, the Protector.

Why did he die literally in the shadow of the old Church of the Assumption, where he’d attended daily Mass thousands of times before the Council? How was it that this old man should die with his entire family united in prayer and grief at his side? Why should it be that he would be accompanied as far as the living can go by a traditionalist priest who’d been his friend for thirty years?

Why did he die on the eighth day of the Octave of the Solemnity of St. Joseph? Why was it that just two days after my father passed on, the new pastor at St. Augustine’s Church found a strange letter from the Chancery office in an old file with my father’s name on it? The letter was a permission note, signed some years ago by the Archbishop of St. Paul/Minneapolis, granting my father unconditional permission to have a Tridentine Requiem Mass for his funeral at St. Augustine’s upon the event of his death. Why should it be that the soonest available date for that funeral after his death was April 24th—the 48th anniversary of my father’s marriage to my mother? Indeed, death alone was the only thing that could break his otherwise unbroken marriage vows.

I don’t believe in coincidence anymore, nor do I have the same fear of death I had a month ago. His was the most Catholic death I have ever imagined. If I wasn’t absolutely positive that his death gave renewed assurance of the rightness of the cause he championed, there was certainly no doubt left in my mind after his funeral Mass. If I live to be as old as he did, I know I’ll never forget that breathtaking moment when the priest raised the consecrated Host high over the altar, even as the glorious sound of the sung Agnus Dei filled the Church. And there, kneeling before the Host were ten of my father’s grandsons in surpluses and cassocks, praying the second Confiteor in hushed unison. These young men have been serving at the altar of the Tridentine Mass for years. Because of their grandfather and his noble stand for truth and tradition, they grew up with this Mass…it was the only one they knew.

His nine children, all of their spouses, all of his thirty-five grandchildren and even his great-grandchildren are practicing the traditional Roman Catholic Faith. Hundreds of his friends and thousands of his faithful readers credit him with having helped them keep hope when hope was seemingly lost, keep faith when it was under the worst attack in history, and keep charity in their hearts when the whole world seemed to be growing embittered. Quite clearly, this was a man who took his duty as a Roman Catholic seriously.

And in his death, Walter Matt gave us his last good example. He taught us what it really means to be a Catholic: to live so that you might die at peace with Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I am humbled by his extraordinary example and I thank God for my father, the greatest man I’ve ever known.


On his prayer card were printed words which I first remember hearing my father utter thirty years ago, when I was a boy kneeling at his feet during the family rosary. The room was dark, save for the light cast by a single candle standing before his relic of the True Cross and two simple statues—one of Our Lady and the other of St. Joseph. After the rosary and night prayers were completed, my father always made the same invocations. Again, they were simple, but he repeated them every night for as long as I can remember: “St. Pius V, Pray for us. St. Pius X, Pray for us. St. Joseph, Pray for us.”

I do not wish to canonize my father here. In fact, I would entreat all those who’ve benefited from his life’s work to never forget my father and to pray most earnestly for the repose of his soul. I have made this my daily intention since his passing. I especially beg the intercession of St. Pius V and St. Pius X, to whom my father had a lifelong devotion. But to St. Joseph, my prayer is one of thanksgiving more than petition. I was there; I saw it. That faint smile was on his lips when he passed away. Surely, St. Joseph had secured the promise: that “kiss of Jesus asleep in his arms” had been returned at the very moment when my father “drew his dying breath.” The great Catholic warrior could blithely sheath his sword and lay his pen aside. In sweet and blessed peace, he took angels’ hands and entered that short, dark passage that leads to the eternal Sabbath of his rest.

O Blessed St. Joseph, how great thou art!