Parishioners honor longtime pastor who retires at 92

| June 6, 2019 | 0 Comments

Father John Clay reacts to applause during Mass at St. Stanislaus in St. Paul May 19 honoring his service to the parish and retirement as pastor. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Since 1975, Father John Clay has been repeating these simple words to his parishioners at St. Stanislaus in St. Paul:

“Smile, God loves you.”

During Mass May 19 to mark his retirement as pastor, more than 200 people packed the pews and returned that message to him.

Joining them was Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who not once but twice during Mass invited the congregation to show appreciation for all Father Clay, 92, had done in 44 years of ministry in the parish. Worshipers rose to their feet the second time, and the applause was augmented by loud cheering. Father Clay, who sat in a chair during Mass due to declining health, smiled as he took it all in.

The affection was palpable for a man who wrote four books and was known for his ministry to grieving families. At least one person joined the Church because of his help during a time of loss.

Archbishop Hebda came up with perhaps the best way to sum up more than four decades of shepherding St. Stanislaus.

“If you could boil down everything that Father Clay was teaching in all of his years of ministry… it’s all going to boil down to love,” the archbishop said during his homily at the Mass. “That God has such deep love for us, that we’re called to have deep love for God and deep love for one another.”

People told stories at the end of Mass and afterward during a reception for Father Clay describing how he showed them love and compassion. For some, it was life changing.

“I feel that Father Clay saved our family,” said Kathy Donnelly Kostohryz, 60, who grew up in the parish and was married there by Father Clay and her own father, Deacon Pat Donnelly, in 1981. She and her six siblings all grew up in the parish, and she credits Father Clay with helping her dad experience a significant inner healing stemming from childhood trauma.

“My dad was born in a very abusive family of 14,” she said. “He was kicked out of his home at the age of 16.”

The abuse haunted him throughout his life, even after becoming a deacon in 1981. He knew he needed to forgive his father for some of it, but he couldn’t. Eventually, his father died, and Deacon Donnelly continued to carry the weight of that unforgiveness.

He confessed this to Father Clay, who guided him to a path to healing before his death in ?.

“Father Clay put his arms around my dad and just said, ‘It’s never too late (to forgive). And now, your dad can actually hear you,’” Donnelly Kostohryz said. Father Clay “literally changed (Deacon Donnelly’s) life with just those few words” and the Donnelly family “just experienced a lot of goodness from that.”

Father Clay ministered to the family again in 2013 when David Riggs, son of Peggy (Donnelly) and Craig Riggs, died after being hit by a car while on a motor scooter. The entire family was devastated, but Father Clay once again found words to soothe the pain and bring healing.

“We went and spoke with him shortly after,” said Peggy Riggs, 58. “And, the thing I think that resonated with me the most is he told me not to feel guilty for questioning my faith, my God. He said we should question it. He said it’s OK to ask: Why us? Why did this have to happen to us? … So, just sitting in Father Clay’s presence and having him tell me and Craig these things just really helped dearly because I knew (during that time) that God was still with us. And, he still gets me through these days. But, it’s because of Father Clay that I can say that.”

Father Clay has helped many more grieving families, said Pat Heroff, who meets with every family when there is a funeral at St. Stanislaus. She has known Father Clay since she moved back to the Twin Cities in 1979 and currently is the parish sacristan.

“He always says (to the families) God loves you no matter what,” said Heroff, 80. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve been, what religion you are, if you believe in God or not. It doesn’t matter. God loves everyone the same.”

He also tells people not to carry guilt over unresolved conflicts with a loved one who has died. Rather, he advises people to channel those feelings toward doing better in the future.

Heroff was on the receiving end of Father Clay’s pastoral gifts after her daughter Christy was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2007. It happened during Fourth of July weekend while the Heroffs were up at their cabin. They remained there for several days afterward, and Heroff said Father Clay called at least five times to ask how the family was doing.

When they got back to the Twin Cities, he helped her plan the funeral, and gave her the encouragement to complete a very important part of it. She wanted to deliver the eulogy, and he asked her if she felt emotionally capable. When she said yes, he let her know of his support.

“He said, ‘Well, if you think you can’t, I’ll be there with my hand on your shoulder helping you. And, Christy will be on the other shoulder,’” she said. “Well, the funeral was beautiful, and with that peace from him, it just flowed so smoothly and everything went well. And, because of that attitude that he has and has given me, I know that my daughter — my Christy — is up there waiting for me.”

Father Clay is all smiles as he talks to Anita Gonzalez during a reception after Mass. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Anita Gonzalez lost her mother in 2016, and an aunt suggested talking to Father Clay about it. Though she had never met him, she went to see him. After that, she began the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in fall 2016. She was in the class with two other women, and completed her journey into the Catholic Church in 2017. She had been baptized and raised Catholic, but had never been confirmed, drifting away from the faith while in college. Father Clay helped bring her back.

“It was an amazing year to be (in class) with Father Clay, just the three of us for 90 minutes every two weeks,” said Gonzalez, 55. “And, it was a really beautiful thing to be confirmed by Father Clay here.”

She especially likes his approach to confession. He encourages people to do it face-to-face, she said, and he uses the sacrament as an opportunity to ask people how they would like God to help them.

“Then, you talk about what’s in your heart,” she said. “It’s very beautiful and healing.”

She needed more of that healing just 10 months after her mother died when another person close to her committed suicide. He had suffered with mental health issues, and she had brought him to Mass with her at St. Stanislaus. She and others close to him did “everything we could,” but lost him in the end.

She said Father Clay called her regularly after this loss and offered words of comfort.

“He said to me that, as tragic as this experience is, that it would deepen my faith,” she said. “And, it has. But, I don’t know if I could have survived that without Father Clay and all of St. Stan’s because it’s such a loving, genuine community.”

During Father Clay’s retirement Mass, Gonzalez and four others came forward at the end to read quotes written by people who have been helped and inspired by the priest, who grew up in New Ulm and was ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1951. Father Claythen added his own words before the final blessing by Archbishop Hebda.

He used a story to explain how he learned about love, a word that has inspired his nearly seven decades of priestly ministry and a word he put in the title of all four books he has written: “Dear People Whom God Loves” (1999), “Surrounded by Love“ (2005), “Awesome Love” (2013) and “Mysterious Love” (2015).

Father Clay’s story described an encounter he had with a 5-year-old boy who came on a visit with his mother to another church where Father Clay was serving at the  time. After touring the church and rectory, the boy asked Father Clay if he ever got lonesome, and Father Clay said yes. The boy got a serious look on his face, then came back later with his mother.

He reached into a bag he was holding and pulled out his teddy bear. He handed it to the surprised priest and made one simple remark.

“He said, ‘Now, you won’t be lonesome anymore,’” Father Clay recalled. “His teddy bear was his whole life. And, he gave it to me because I was lonesome. Now, what do you call that? That is plain, ordinary, deep love. He had nothing to gain from it — nothing at all. That’s where I most learned about love — (from) a child, 5 years old.”

After telling the story, Father Clay added: “Love is what counts. Nothing else takes its place. … That’s what our great lover, God, wants to give to us.”

That message will be on the hearts of parishioners who try to carry on his legacy under the leadership of his replacement, Father Dennis Thompson.

It also will be on the arm of at least one member of St. Stanislaus.

“I have a tattoo to honor my nephew on one wrist,” Kathy Donnelly Kostohryz said. “I’m thinking I’m going to get ‘Smile, God loves you’ tattooed on the other … because it’s such an amazing thing to know.”



Tags: , , ,

Category: Local News