Pastor served West End parish with love and humility for 45 years

By Anne Murphy

Father John Clay was a cornerstone of compassion in Saint Paul’s West End neighborhood for 45 years, according to those who knew him. When the longtime pastor of Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church died on September 13 at the age of 94, what he meant to the parishioners and other people of the surrounding neighborhood was readily apparent.

“Father Clay’s theology was one of love,” said the Reverend Walter Wietzke, who retired recently as pastor of nearby Saint Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church. “Under him, Saint Stan’s became one of the most important places in the West Seventh neighborhood. He and his congregation were so welcoming.

“I first got to know Father Clay in 1982,” Wietzke said. “Our church was right across the street. We developed a friendship that was more than a friendship, and it made such a difference in our congregations. People think of Catholic and Lutheran churches as separate and exclusive, but we didn’t feel that way. When you hear about interfaith families, we were one in West Seventh.”

The two congregations participated together in educational programs, mission work and even worship. When Saint Mark was extensively damaged by fire in December 2014, Father Clay offered Saint Stan’s for the funeral that was scheduled at Saint Mark that day. “At the time, we had the Black congregation of the Free at Last Church of God in Christ worshipping with us, and we were all at Saint Stan’s for Christmas that year,” Wietzke said.

 

Father John Clay
Parishioners of Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church gathered around their pastor, Father John Clay, in June 2016. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Father Clay became pastor emeritus of Saint Stan’s in 2019 when he was succeeded by Father Dennis Thompson. However, a reflection of Father Clay’s theology can still be found in the mission statement of the church: “Holy is any place where it is safe to tell your story. Holy is any place that creates justice. God’s doors are open to all.”

 

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“Father was the most compassionate, humble and accepting person whose life message was all about peace and tranquility,” said Pat Heroff, Father Clay’s secretary and sacristan at Saint Stan’s for 25 years. “He’d always say, ‘Smile, God loves you.’ That’s a feeling he wanted everyone to experience.”

Longtime friend and personal physician Dr. Tim Rumsey called Father Clay an institution of kindness and inclusion in the neighborhood. “We both came to West Seventh in 1975,” Rumsey said, and they would at times refer a patient or a parishioner to the other man’s care.

“Father Clay was holy, but not holier than thou. He made people feel valued. At his visitation, I saw a homeless man I knew. I delivered the man 40 years ago, and he has struggled. He told me he was at the visitation because Father Clay had been so helpful to him. Father Clay saw people with all kinds of needs, from mental health to loneliness to gender issues, and he always welcomed them.”

“I’d hear patients talking about Father Clay and how he was so welcoming and non-judgmental,” Rumsey said. “People who had otherwise felt unwanted and disenfranchised felt the opposite when they were at Saint Stan’s. Father Clay was holy, but not holier than thou. He made people feel valued. At his visitation, I saw a homeless man I knew. I delivered the man 40 years ago, and he has struggled. He told me he was at the visitation because Father Clay had been so helpful to him. Father Clay saw people with all kinds of needs, from mental health to loneliness to gender issues, and he always welcomed them.”

People from all over the Twin Cities came to Saint Stan’s to attend Father Clay’s masses, according to Rumsey. “He was the heart of the neighborhood,” he said. “His heart wasn’t just within the walls of Saint Stan’s either; the church and the neighborhood were intertwined for him. He resonated with people inside and out.”

Father Clay saw people as equals who should be treated as equals.

Father Clay was devoted to the belief that everyone should be loved equally and that everyone deserved help when needed, according to Eme Linnick. Described as Father Clay’s “virtual daughter” by parishioners, Linnick met the priest 25 years ago when she was going through a dark time in her life. After more than two decades of friendship, Linnick became Father Clay’s care adviser and power of attorney as his health deteriorated from dementia. Last year, she helped him move into the Willows of Ramsey Hill for memory care.

“He loved the Willows,” Linnick said. “He took joy in the small things around him. He had a beautiful mind, and it stayed beautiful even as his health declined. He loved looking at the clouds and the trees. He took comfort in saying his favorite prayer, the Irish Blessing.”

Born in Des Moines and raised in New Ulm, Father Clay had an Irish mother, according to Linnick. “She told him ‘Smile and the whole world will smile with you.’ That was deeply entrenched,” she said.

Father Clay saw people as equals who should be treated as equals, according to Linnick. “The person who needed to ask for money was equal to the person who was able to make a contribution,” she said. “He believed you shouldn’t expect respect because you’re a priest. You should earn respect by being a good man.

“Saint Stan’s was full of people who felt they didn’t have anyplace else to go,” Linnick said. “They saw that they were welcome there. He authentically and deeply cared about people. He was accessible and accepting.”

Less than a year before Father Clay stepped down as Saint Stan’s pastor, Saint Paul author Patricia Hampl, who grew up in the West End, learned of his welcoming manner and inclusive ways. “I became a member of Saint Stan’s when the Poor Clare’s in Bloomington, where I’d gone to Mass for 35 years, closed their monastery and moved to Rochester,” she said. “I went up after my first Mass at Saint Stan’s and introduced myself to Father Clay. He was instantly approachable. I told him I’d been baptized at Saint Stan’s in 1946 and this was my first time back. I expected some astonishment on his part, but he just smiled that serene smile and said, ‘Well, welcome back.’”

Father Clay was “very much about forgiveness,” Hampl said. “He radiated forgiveness. You got the feeling he couldn’t pass judgment. And it wasn’t that he was just an optimist. It was simple but not simplistic. He never let go of seeing the beauty in life because he loved everyone.”

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