A well-loved priest whose influence has been felt in the Archdiocese of Anchorage for 24 years is leaving his last local ministry next month.
Holy Cross Father LeRoy Clementich, known affectionately to most as “Father Clem,” will have his last column published for the Catholic Anchor in February, bringing an 18-year run to an end.
The priest left Alaska in 2008 and lives at the retirement community at Notre Dame University in Indiana, but continued to write an award-winning column on Scripture after his departure.
“When I had an office in the pastoral center, (then editor) John Roscoe and I would talk about theology, liturgy and the church,” recalled the 94-year-old priest. “One day, he said, ‘What we ought to do is have a column in the Anchor.’”
Father Clementich saw it as a good antidote to local homilies that sometimes fell short on Scriptural exegesis. He said he tried to introduce Scripture with anecdotes that people could relate to, and was often rewarded by readers telling him, “You write the way we think.”
But his column was only a small part of the ministry he began in the archdiocese in 1993, the year he turned 70.
Despite being at an age when many think about retirement and golf, the wiry and energetic priest began to fly a piper Cherokee 180 into rural areas to offer Mass and served as director of rural ministry and as canonical pastor to several far-flung rural parishes. He began a pastoral leadership program to train laity.
When people in rural areas had questions about the church or canon law, Father Clementich was the go-to adviser.
“I flew into Talkeetna, Trapper Creek, Glennallen, Kenai, Soldotna. Occasionally, weather permitting, I’d fly to Dillingham and King Salmon,” he recalled.
Father Clementich is also well known for his love of fishing, which is what initially brought him to Alaska.
“I would come up in the 1980s and 90s with a friend to fish,” Father Clementich recalls. “We would always stop and see (then archbishop) Frank Hurley. I’d say, ‘I’m here for a couple of weeks. Send me to Glennallen.’”
It wasn’t long before Archbishop Hurley was urging the priest to come permanently. It took a year, but his order finally gave him permission.
“Are there any people up there?” one of his superiors asked.
“‘We’ll call you when we want you to leave,’” Father Clem remembers being told, adding with a chuckle, “They never called.”
Father Clementich was born in 1924 on a ranch in North Dakota where he attended a one-room country schoolhouse. He said the simple life of the farm was where he first found God.
“I discovered God when out plowing, riding our horse, seeing the clouds come up over the hills,” he said. “God’s nature overwhelms you.”
His mother planted the idea of priesthood in the young man and sent him off to a Catholic high school in Minot as a boarding student. While serving in the Army in Germany in 1945 he attended daily Mass and was invited to become a chaplain’s assistant. Although the priesthood hadn’t been discussed, when it was time to leave, the chaplain quietly gave him a contact number at Notre Dame, saying to call the number if he ever thought of priesthood.
He entered the Holy Cross order and was ordained in 1957. He has taught in high school and college, worked in campus ministry for 12 years, and served as a pastor in Colorado. His academic training includes a degree in theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York, a year of studies at the Vatican II Institute in Belgium and summer studies in liturgy at Notre Dame.
In 2005, Catholic Extension, a national organization serving 90 rural and mission dioceses, awarded Father Clementich its “Lumen Christi Award” for heroic service to Catholics in the 138,000-square-mile Archdiocese of Anchorage.
“His homilies and his writing are rooted in the farm in North Dakota where he grew up,” said Deacon Ted Greene, a close friend of Father Clementich. The priest is plainspoken and homespun, he said.
“He never talks in circles, and he felt a deep obligation to bring the Eucharist to people in rural areas,” Deacon Greene said. “And he wanted a trained laity so they would be able to lead.”
With Father Clementich, “we got a chance to meet a living saint,” added Deacon Greene, who still discusses church events and theology with the priest by phone almost weekly. He said the 94-year-old priest is still at the top of his game intellectually.
Even after leaving the state in 2008, friendship and fishing brought Father Clementich back for several visits. As he grew older, his close friend, Maureen Haines, who worked with him at the Pastoral Center, began flying to the Lower 48 to accompany him on his flights to Alaska.
As a fisherman, he said his “first love” was fly-fishing. Inevitably, after Mass, “someone in the village would say, ‘let’s go fishing.’” And with a sister who spends her summers in Soldotna, Father Clementich would often find himself fishing off the family dock.
In 2003, at his 80th birthday party, Father Clementich confessed that he had stopped his practice of an early morning run outdoors, which he had been committed to through summer or winter, sun or ice. His only concession to turning 80 was indoor exercise. And when asked how he managed to remain so active and athletic, his answer was one word, “discipline.”
But in 2008, nearing age 85, the priest retired to Holy Cross House on the campus of Notre Dame University. He said that the new millennium brought a sense that he was slowing down. Later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a usually slow-moving neurodegenerative disorder also suffered by the actor Michael J. Fox who has focused attention on the disease.
Although still actively involved in the intellectual life, Father Clementich finds the disease is sapping his once age-defying energy. And, without an active ministry, he said he finds it harder to produce a relatable column. In a sense, he told the Anchor, he feels he’s had his say.
Even after fishing, writing and piloting have yielded to encroaching old age, a deep concern for the church continues to animate Father Clementich, who is a huge fan of Pope Francis.
Father Clementich still attends daily Mass at the retirement center and is involved in daily activities with his Holy Cross friends.