When Clem first arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1993, some might have mistaken him for a senior citizen.
A Holy Cross priest, Father LeRoy Clementich was 70 when he began his adventuresome ministry piloting a Piper Cherokee 180 into remote Alaskan villages to say Mass.
At his desk at the chancery where he supervised rural ministry, he developed pastoral leadership programs for lay leaders, many of them women, who led Bush parishes in the then 140,000 square mile Archdiocese of Anchorage (now the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau.)
For several years, even after leaving Anchorage in 2008, Clem wrote an award-winning column on Scripture for the local Catholic paper, and on his 80th birthday, his minor concession to age was to begin jogging at a gym, rather than on Anchorage’s icy streets.
What accounted for this vigor at 80? “Discipline,” he told me.
His homilies, and his homespun, authentic presence were beloved. Inevitably, after Mass in some small village, someone would ask him if he wanted to go fishing. He was an avid fly fisherman.
No one ever thought of the progressive priest as an old man, and everyone called him Clem.
He was 96 when he died in July, back at Notre Dame, Indiana, yet it still shocked those of us who knew him back in his Alaskan days.
The last time my husband and I saw Clem, in 2018, we were on a cross-country road trip and picked him up at the University of Notre Dame for dinner. I was delighted to see the campus, and Clem suggested an Italian restaurant nearby.
Unbeknown to him, the restaurant was hosting a style show that night. So, as we sipped our wine, Clem chuckled as ladies in chic ensembles sashayed past our table.
The next year, when we made the same trip, Clem declined our offer of dinner. Parkinson’s disease and age were taking a toll.
Clem was born on a ranch in North Dakota in 1924 and attended a one-room country school. In an article I once wrote about Clem, he told me, “I discovered God when out plowing, riding our horse, seeing the clouds come up over the hills. God’s nature overwhelms you.”
In 1945, with the army in Germany, he served as a chaplain’s assistant. When it was time to leave, the chaplain quietly slipped Clem a contact number at Notre Dame and told him to call if he ever thought about the priesthood.
Clem was ordained a Holy Cross priest in 1957. He taught at the high school and university levels, studied theology in Belgium, and brought his pastoral touch to many parishes.
Fishing took him on vacations to Alaska where he would always check in with then-Archbishop Francis Hurley, who encouraged him to come to serve the archdiocese.
When Clem asked his order for permission, one of his superiors asked, “Are there any people up there?”
In 2005, Catholic Extension, which serves mission dioceses, awarded Clem its “Lumen Christi Award” for heroic service in the archdiocese.
Not long after his death, the Holy Cross Fathers sent his last Christmas letter — for 2021 — to his correspondents’ list.
Christmas in July? This wasn’t just Clem’s efficiency at work. He must have written this, given it to his superior along with his address list, and said, make sure my friends get this if I’m not here to send it. To him, church was community, and even in death, he wanted his community to know he loved them.
For me, a final lesson from Clem: Reach out to those you love, even the youthful ones you think will live forever.