I first met Fr. Clem when I was a novice in 1985, along with three other novices. It was his last year of being the province novice director—not that we wore him out! I remember Fr. Clem taking us to the second floor where we were assigned our bedrooms. He looked at me and said, “Stephan, your room is right here across from mine. You other three can choose whatever rooms are available down the hall.” It wasn’t that I was favored by Fr. Clem, but he knew I was a musician and he wanted me to work with the liturgies in his parish, and in the community. You see, my image of Fr. Clem is that of the Psalm response we sang today “He praised the Lord all his days and made music to his God while he lived.” I think he is still doing that right now.
Fr. Clem grew up on a farm with his 14 siblings in Flasher, North Dakota. I had never heard of Flasher before! I guess it is a small town, but it was there that he was taught to live a simple life and to appreciate the gifts that God gives through hard work. He likely sang often with his family. It was his family who taught him to listen to God. Fr. Clem always felt God in his life. One of the things he knew for sure was that God had a plan for him, but he just didn’t think it was to the priesthood. Yet, his vocation became clear and strong through the encouragement of his mother and in speaking with his pastor. While attending Crosier Seminary, he felt God’s call to join the Crosiers because our Crosier community life appealed to him, and our ministries which gave hope to so many people in their struggles.
Fr. Clem knew his own struggles and gifts. He once told Fr. Kermit Holl, osc, that the first time he knew he was going to hell was on the day of his First Communion. He broke the communion fast when he scraped some ice from the car window and put it in his mouth. He said he lived with that sin for eight years! Well, I don’t think he has gone to hell. Though, I know at one time during my novitiate, he struggled with hell. The other novices and I were playing cards with Fr. Clem and I kept winning. Eventually he just said, “That’s it!” He stood up and left. Later he told me that he wanted to kill me for winning five times in a row! He liked to win. But then he apologized and we laughed. Hell did not win.
The Gospel passage today speaks about being prepared to meet the Lord when He comes. Fr. Clem was ready. He was ready by the way he lived his Crosier life and priesthood. He was a man of passion and love and of music and song. Throughout his life as a Crosier, he served in parishes, as pastor, associate pastor and senior associate pastor. In the Order, he served as secretary to the Crosier vicar general, as business manager and novice director. He also used his talents as a musician to play and sing for liturgies to help us “Praise the Lord all our days.” In all that he did, he gave his all. In the end, he was ready, no regrets.
Fr. Clem knew the struggle of addiction. But he also knew the saving power of Christ in his addictions. Christ saved him, not just his soul. He found support in his recovery, as we cared for him and held him accountable. Because of his experience in recovery through support groups, he saw himself as a messenger of wholeness and holiness.
In the last few years, he was living back in the filial priory helping mostly with the music for liturgies, again helping us praise the Lord. He really enjoyed his friendship with Fr. Johnny Fleischhacker, osc,—their conversations, trips, visiting family and he enjoyed their game time—especially when he won! As his health declined and he moved to Lake Song Assisted Living facility, he continued to stay connected to the community. At one point when he was in the nursing home recovering from a procedure, I was told that when he got tired he told his visitors, “Thank you for coming, you can go now.” So, when I visited him, I was expecting him to tell me that, but he was so delightful. I guess I was his favorite novice!
Near the end, Fr. Clem said he was ready to die. He was the oldest American Crosier at the time of his death—94 years old. His death came unexpectedly, but he lived a faithful life and was ready to meet the One who came to save him and save us.
When I look back at Fr. Clem’s life, I hold dear to my heart what St. Paul told St. Timothy, in today’s second reading “You have competed well, you have finished the race, and you have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Now a crown of righteousness awaits you. Fr. Clem, thank you for being a friend, a brother and a Crosier. I will never forget you. WE will never forget you. Enjoy accompanying the celestial liturgy—never missing a note—praising the Lord all the days of your eternal life.