Nearly 90, archdiocese’s oldest active pastor focuses on love and mercy

| Susan Klemond | June 23, 2016 | 3 Comments

‘I just tell them all I love you’

FatherClayPortrait

At 89, Father John Clay is still going strong as pastor of St. Stanislaus in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

After 65 years of priesthood, Father John Clay could fit his favorite pastoral message into a single 140-character tweet.

“I tell them I love them all the time and God loves them and that’s just the whole story,” said Father Clay, who turns 90 July 7 and is the archdiocese’s oldest active pastor.

Father Clay, who has served since 1975 as the first non-Czech pastor of St. Stanislaus in St. Paul and has no plans to retire, does get his messages out on Twitter and the parish website with the help of parish staff. The staff is also handling administration for the 1,100-household parish so he can focus on what he said he does best — administering and preparing Catholics to receive the sacraments, writing and spiritual counseling.

Through his long priestly ministry and tenure at “St. Stan’s,” Father Clay has cultivated deep relationships, fostered involvement and care for the parish’s West Seventh neighborhood, and led a congregation of people not only from the neighborhood but throughout the Twin Cities.

‘We’ve got to learn from each other’

While considering the changes he’s seen in the Church and priesthood, Father Clay talked about the personal transformation God has been doing especially during the past 10 years, and how it brings him back to the theme of loving others.

Father Clay was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1926. The second of four boys, he grew up in New Ulm, which was then part of the Archdiocese of St. Paul. A priest who coached his sixth-grade sports teams was a “hero” who sparked his interest in priesthood. A couple years later, Father Clay became convinced he wanted to do the work of a priest. He studied for the priesthood at Nazareth Hall Preparatory Seminary (which closed in 1970 and is now the site of the University of Northwestern) and then at St. Paul Seminary, both in St. Paul.

Following his 1951 ordination, Father Clay served at St. Peter in Richfield with a pastor, Father William Brand, who was a positive influence. “He said, ‘You earn your respect as a man; respect for the priesthood will follow.’ I never forgot that.”

Father Clay later served as an associate at St. Olaf in downtown Minneapolis, St. Joseph in Red Wing, and St. Leo (now Lumen Christi) in St. Paul’s Highland Park before being assigned pastor of Our Lady of the Lake in Mound.

Father John Clay laughs with staff members and parishioners at St. Stanislaus in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Father John Clay laughs with staff members and parishioners at St. Stanislaus in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

In the early 1970s, Father Clay dealt with divisions among his parishioners affected by liturgical and other changes influenced by Vatican II.

Recalling the period after the Council, he said he didn’t realize at the time how difficult the changes were for some Catholics. Coming to understand that has helped him be more sensitive to Catholics who have left the Church, as well as self-described “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics.

“The Gospel is deeper than liberal and conservative,” he said.

After returning to St. Olaf for several years, Father Clay found a home at St. Stanislaus in 1975. Then an older congregation, St. Stanislaus now has a diverse membership from around the Twin Cities.

Tucked between Interstate 35E and the Mississippi River a mile southwest of downtown St. Paul, St. Stanislaus is well situated for parishioners’ outreach to its neighbors along West Seventh Street. Father Clay encourages his congregation to be aware of and involved in the lower-income area, said Lindsay Lopez, 58, who has served as St. Stanislaus’ director of religious education for 27 years.

“It’s a journey we’ve been on as a parish — to be more and more conscious of life that’s happening around you,” she said.

St. Stanislaus sponsors food and clothing drives plus other efforts to support its neighbors. When fire damaged nearby St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church shortly before Christmas in 2014, Father Clay offered to share St. Stanislaus’ worship space not only with the Lutheran congregation, but also with the Free at Last Church of God in Christ Church, which had been using St. Mark’s space.

“We’ve got to learn from each other,” said Father Clay, who said he learned religious tolerance from his mother, an Irish Catholic, and his father, a deist. “They can learn from us and we can learn from them.”

Father Clay puts people of all backgrounds at ease, said Dolores Hunstad, 88, who served as the parish’s pastoral minister for 30 years and is still “on call.”

“He’s got so much compassion and love for everybody. No matter the color of your skin or if you’re Catholic, Baptist or whatever you are, you’re still God’s children in his eyes,” she said.

He does the same for parish employees, giving them latitude as he keeps track of what they’re working on, Lopez said.

St. Stanislaus has changed while Father Clay has been pastor — and so has he — through prayer and experience, he said.

“I’m not the same as I was in 1975,” he said. “What I’ve finally come to understand is that I have learned more about what it means to be a Christian since I was 80 than in the first 80 years of my life.”

He also believes God has shown him more about loving others, including enemies.

In his pastoral work, he tries to help people find a new path and said he is happiest as a priest when he can help people allow God to change them.

Mercy is a regular theme in Father Clay’s homilies.

“I just tell them all I love you,” he said. “When you’re older you can do stuff like that.”

Through his compassion, he helps people believe that God loves them, too, said Lopez, who was married by Father Clay at the parish 40 years ago.

“What’s unique about Father Clay is that he always talks about how God loves you and he talks in such a way that God loves you right now no matter what,” she said.

As he approaches the 10th decade of his life, Father Clay plans to continue the pastoral work he enjoys, including welcoming parishioners, writing homilies and crafting tweets. Despite suffering a mild heart attack and colon cancer several years ago, he is now in good health, he said.

“I’ll work as long as I’m able,” he said. “If the [pastoral] council sees I’m not doing my job, they’ll tell me.”

Hunstad said she hopes that won’t happen anytime soon.

“God willing, we hope we have him for a long time yet,” she said. “I‘m hoping that the archbishop agrees with me. He [Father Clay] loves that ministry. It’s his whole life.”

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  • Paula Ruddy

    Thank you for profiling Father John Clay. I have never been in his parish, but I have known many people who have felt the power of his loving ministry.

  • Tom Groebner

    Many times I have wondered where Fr John Clay ended up. He and I were in St Marys Grade School in New Ulm back in the 40’s He was a year ahead of me so he probably doesn’t remember me. It’s wonderful hear how well he is doing especially when he has cracked the 90 year mark . That’s quite an accomplishment–most priests have retired far earlier than this. I think they usually retire in their 70’s in the New Ulm Diocese. e had Fr Anthony Louis back in the 1940’s and he was a big influence in my life. There are not too many folks still around from those days.

  • Frances Diaz

    Father Clay has always made it possible to baptize our families new babies, he has married people in our families. He is so giving, kind and generous. We love you father Clay you are an angel.