A Gift of Faith: My Memories of Father LeRoy Clementich

Reverend LeRoy E. Clementich C.S.C. (1924 – 2021)

Professor Joe Goldblatt

There are those rare individuals who accidently enter our lives for a brief period of time and through their faith in us make an enduring contribution to our future lives. The Reverend LeRoy Clementich, who died this week after 97 years of service to others, was one of these individuals.

He prefered to be called Clem or Father Clem and we first met when I was trying to patch up my life and move forward after an early unsuccessful marriage. At the age of 22 I was admitted to a Holy Cross University in Austin, Texas where Father Clem was the head of the Campus Ministry.

As I was one of only four Jewish students on campus in 1972, I felt a little lost among the many Catholic students of which a large percentage were Mexican American having been recruited as part of the pionering College Assistance Migrant Programme (C.A.M.P.) designed to help young people from the Texas – Mexico border fulfill their college dreams.

My mother was the daughter of a German Jewish mother, although her father was Roman Catholic. Mama experienced rituals from both Judaiasm and Catholicism and attended parochial schools. As a result, I felt equally comfortable atttending a Jewish sabbath service as well as a Catholic mass.

Therefore, I suppose it was natural for me to seek out our Catholic campus chaplain for help when I and other Jewish students decided to form the first ever Jewish Students Organisation upon the hilltop campus of St. Edward’s University. After meeting with Father Clem in his small office and experiencing his warm and broad smile I knew that we would be successful in finding a home for Jewish traditions within this unique campus community. Father Clem explained that if we started an official Jewish organisation, the Student Union would provide us with a financial grant to help us organise programmes for Jewish students and others. He also told me that we would need two members of the faculty to serve as our official sponsors and he immediately agreed to be the first sponsor. His office was so small that as I sat across from him our knees touched one another and when he agreed to be our first sponsor I almost felt an electric spark due to my excitement.

The second sponsor would be more difficult to find. I invited a wide variety of men and women from throughout the University to join Father Clem as our co – sponsor and for a wide variety of reasons I was repeatedly turned down. However, finally, just before the filing deadline for grant aid, one of our Methodist faculty members agreed to serve as our second sponsor. Ralph Kerns was a former professional actor and cruise ship director who was serving as artist in residence within the drama programme at St. Ed’s and he and Clem had become good friends as Father Clem was also an amateur actor who appeared in some of the student productions, a few which that were directed by Ralph.

My fellow Jewish students and I completed the application for funding for the St. Edward’s University Jewish Students Organisation (SEU JSO) and soon received a massive grant of $500 to enable us to organise a campus wide Chanukah celebration. Chanukah is a winter festival that commemorates the once again miraculous survival of the Jewish people and includes the lighting of a large candelabra (menorah) featuring eight candles to remind us of the time the Jewish tribe of Maccabees through their faith set off to locate enough oil to keep the eternal light in their temple burning. The nearest oil would require a return journey of eight days. Therefore, when the Maccabees returned to the temple and found the eternal light still burning they hailed this as a miracle and thousands of years later we still kindle eight candles, one each night for eight days, to remind us of the importance of faith in ourself and others.

We arranged with the director of catering the menu that would feature traditional potato latkes (pancakes), tzimmes (candied carrots), donuts and other Jewish delicacies fried in oil to remind us of the miracale of the everlasting oil lamp. We also invited an Israeli dance troupe from a nerby much larger University and finally we asked our new sponsors, Clem and Ralph, if they would join us in lighting our candelabra. Both sponsors readily agreed and we decided to host our event at the usual campus dining hour so as to surprise our fellow students with this new tradition upon our campus.

Father Clem explained to the 500 or so students in the dining hall that they would experience something new and unique and then he briefly talking about miracles in both the Jewish and Catholic tradition and how Jesus himself was a Jew who believed in miracles. Following the lighting of all eight candles, Father Clem, Ralph, myself and others led our fellow students in dancing the Jewish circle dance known as the Hora to the melody of Hava Nagila (Let Us Rejoince).

After this successful event, I returned to my studies and then as my graduation date approached I began to wonder what would be the next step in my career. I considered immediately applying for a graduate programme in Arts Administration, however, after researching this field. I soon learned that job opportunities were few. Therefore, once again, I sought counselling from my friend and mentor, Father Clem.

After explaining to Clem how I had left a bad marriage and immediately enrolled in the University and worked day and night to complete my degree he slowly shook his head from side to side while emphathising with my concerns about my future. Then he quietly said to me “Why not take a break and go somewhere where you have friends and take time to think about your next career move?”

His words were so comforting because I had not given myself permission to literally breathe for the past two and half years. He asked me where I might have friends that I could visit and I replied that the wife of my former roomate was living in Washington, DC and caring for two children of a famous national television news presenter. I followed Clem’s advice and contacted her and within a few days I had an invitation to meet with the mother of a nearby neighbur and was offered the post of governor or “Male Mary Poppins” for her two children. During my time caring for these wonderful children I also revived my old clown act and each day would become a street performer doing mime, magic and tap dancing for tourists in exchange for their treasure.

One evening whilst walking home, I noticed a sign on a dance studio window that announced “Juggling Classes” being offered by Lynner the Clown. I started to climb the steep stairs to the studio and noticed that at the top landing was the most beautiful female clown in the world and she was holding three juggling clubs. I did not enroll in her class, however, less than a year later, we married one another and together we had two fine sons and now two grandsons.

This week when I learned of the death of Father Clem, I remembered his wise counsel of telling me to “Take a break.” That break opened many new wonderful doors. In his office that summer afternoon he found in me the faith that I did not have in myself to trust in the future and allow my life to unfold in many mysterious ways. Some might call this a miracle. Nearly fifty years later, I simply remember it as the gift of faith that a beloved Catholic priest generously gave to a lost Jewish boy. I and many others are indeed similar to that lamp discovered by the Macabees thousands of years ago in that we are miracles discovered and nurtured by this remarkable man during his ninety seven years on earth.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret Univerdity and a 1975 Summa Cum Laude Graduate of St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. To learn more about his life read his memoirs at www.joegoldblatt.scot

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