Father Simonson retires, reflects on 40 years at St. Clement

| November 17, 2017 | 5 Comments

Father Earl Simonson has fond memories of his 40 years at St. Clement in northeast Minneapolis. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

When Father Spencer Howe came on board in July as parochial administrator of Holy Cross in northeast Minneapolis, it didn’t take him long to learn about the “giant” who preceded him, Father Earl Simonson.

“In essence, he’s just been a giant in the neighborhood,” Father Howe said of Father Simonson, 87, who will celebrate his retirement Nov. 19 at Holy Cross with an 11 a.m. Mass, followed by an open house in the parish’s Kolbe Hall from 1 to 4 p.m.

Forty years ago, Father Simonson became pastor of St. Clement, which merged in 2012 with nearby St. Anthony of Padua, St. Hedwig and Holy Cross, taking the latter parish’s name.

“Many people are aware of the contributions he’s made,” Father Howe said. “One of the important groups who knows him and remembers him are the poor. He had a real tenderness towards the poor.”

During his tenure, Father Simonson ensured the doors of St. Clement church and rectory were always open to the poor in the neighborhood, parishioners or not.

“He would baptize anyone, and he would bury anyone,” said Diane Soderberg, Holy Cross’ campus coordinator who worked with Father Simonson for five years. “He told me once, ‘I do that because there is always hope that one person in that church will come back.’ And, I always thought that was pretty cool.”

Father Simonson considers himself somewhat of a curmudgeon, talking as though it takes some fortitude to put up with him.

“I’m not easy to get along with,”  he said. “I’ve got a temper. I’m also stubborn.”

But, that’s not the way those who have gotten to know him over the years describe a man many priests call “Earl the Pearl.”

“People just loved him right from the start,” said longtime St. Clement parishioner Lorraine Bohlman, who was there when Father Simonson arrived in 1977. “He just had a way. It was just like he was one of your family.”

Bohlman still remembers the funeral Mass Father Simonson celebrated for her husband, Earl, on the Monday after Thanksgiving in 1983. He had died Thanksgiving day, and the funeral was originally scheduled for Saturday. A snowstorm caused it to be pushed to Monday. Because there still was snow in the parking lot that day, the mortuary staff asked Lorraine if she wanted to have the funeral at the mortuary instead, to avoid the hassle of taking her husband’s body to the church.

No way, she said. She wanted his funeral at the church, and she wanted Father Simonson to celebrate the Mass.

She was not disappointed.

“He did a beautiful job” celebrating the funeral Mass, Lorraine said of Father Simonson. “He made me and the kids feel very comfortable, just the way he talked.”

She said he was that way with everyone.

“When there was a funeral, [with] the homily that he gave at the Mass, you would feel like he was part of the family,” she said. “He had such a way of talking to everybody. You just felt like … the person that had passed away was a friend of his also.”

She also noted that he had a practice of taking Communion weekly to homebound parishioners. While many were watching football games, he would spend his Sunday afternoon visiting parishioners confined to their homes.

“I don’t know any other priest who does that,” she said. “He would do it every single Sunday all year long.”

He is also skilled in the kitchen. He was known for making gourmet dinners for priests who would come to the church on weekends to celebrate Masses. His go-to menu choice was Cornish game hen stuffed with wild rice and mushrooms, asparagus with Hollandaise sauce and baked potato, all following a shrimp cocktail appetizer, with a dessert of baked Alaska.

“I was trained to cook,” he said. “I had originally decided I might want to be a cook.”

Priesthood was not something he thought about during his childhood because he was not Catholic. Born in Decorah, Iowa, he moved with his parents, Clara and Clifford, to St. Paul when he was just a few months old. A younger brother and sister followed.

The summer before his ninth-grade year at Harding High School, he got a job working on a farm in southern Minnesota. Because of World War II, there was a shortage of men for the fields, so high schoolers
were recruited.

The farm was owned by a devout Catholic couple who took him to Sunday Mass. When he returned to St. Paul, he decided it was time to “get a religion,” he recalled.

After reading up on several denominations, he chose Catholicism. He visited St. John of St. Paul on St. Paul’s East Side and was baptized there when he was 16. (St. John merged with St. Pascal Baylon in 2013.)

St. John’s priest liked him, and he encouraged him to go to college and think about seminary. The family was poor, and Earl thought it was financially impossible. But, all of his service at the parish made an impression on a wealthy member, who funded his entire seminary education. He was ordained in 1969 at age 39, 13 years older than most of his other 13 classmates.

His first assignment after ordination was St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, not far from St. Clement. He believes that assignment prepared him well for the day he was assigned to be St. Clement’s pastor, a role he relished.

“It was just a delight to be there, and I loved the parish,” he said of St. Clement. “I got along with the people. They seemed to get along with me. They’d be happy with what I would do.”

According to Soderberg, Father Simonson was happiest when he was celebrating a baptism, funeral or school liturgy. He kept plenty busy with those things and more, but still had time to engage in one of his other hobbies — sewing.

“A whole room in the rectory was a sewing room,” Father Howe said. “He did make a lot of vestments and mend a lot of vestments. I think it was one of the ways he expressed his love for the Church and for the liturgy. He always used to joke: ‘Why would I buy a cassock when I could make my own?’”

Most things about this retired priest were self-made, including his independent personality.

“He’s his own man,” Father Howe said. “There’s kind of a rugged independence and idiosyncrasies. But, God uses those idiosyncrasies and personality traits both to endear people and [bring] the levity we need not to take ourselves too seriously.”

One thing Father Howe will take seriously is the legacy left by a man who insists he is not worthy of being honored for his four decades of ministry. Father Howe was one of many who fought through Father Simonson’s resistance and insisted on a celebration so that people could gather and express their gratitude.

He is among Father Simonson’s many admirers.

“He loved the people,” Father Howe said. “He was accessible, [and] he worked hard. There was nothing really flashy in his ministry, but that commitment to not settle for less and to just be all in and given to his people. … As a young priest, I hope and pray to have the same energy and zeal for souls, God willing, when I get to be an old priest.”


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