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Godspeed Monsignor Michael Clay

Monsignor Michael Clay came to St. Francis Parish at a uniquely challenging time. The Friars had chosen to withdraw in December of 2019, effective in the summer of 2020, and Bishop Zarama assigned Monsignor Clay as pastor. Having been established as a Franciscan-led parish shortly after its founding, the friars’ withdrawal after 32 years of service shocked many in the community. Coming from Catholic University, Michael Clay was an academic and experienced pastor, previously serving as pastor in two local parishes before his tenure at Catholic University. Of course, COVID-19 and the resulting response to the pandemic began in March 2020. All this turmoil would challenge any arriving pastor, but Monsignor Clay was ready.

Jacob House, an active parishioner on the Pastoral Council and Leader of the Strategic Planning Committee, recalls, “Within days of moving here in September of 2020, Monsignor put his teaching charism to work. Our first Pastoral Council meetings featured mini-lectures about the Catholic Church’s urgent need throughout the Western world to refocus on knowing Jesus personally, Christianity 101, the Kerygma, and helping ourselves and others understand and live out our baptismal call.” This priority aligned with the Pastoral Council’s discernment that “Evangelization” was the unifying priority God was calling us to parish-wide.  Jacob says, “In the months just before Monsignor’s arrival, we were suffering from the lack of physical communion caused by COVID, and the Pastoral Council recommended that we utilize virtual small groups to keep us connected.” 

Mae Villanueva, Chair of the Pastoral Council, remembers this focus on the faith from the beginning. “Fr. Michael’s KBL series was a wonderful way for many of us to either learn or refocus on those core tenets of our faith that sometimes get overlooked. I’ve had many parishioners tell me how impactful that series was on their understanding of the faith. It was an extra blessing to have the opportunity to go through it in small groups, which provided much-needed community and connection during COVID.” 

Part of the effort to maintain and build community was how Michael embraced the Franciscan charism of the parish. “Michael’s continual efforts to support and encourage our Franciscan identity by establishing the annual Franciscan Convocation, the Franciscan Day of Reflection, and the Franciscan Garden have been very uplifting for our community,” highlights Kathy Sales, the current Director of Liturgy and Sacraments. Mae agrees. “Fr. Michael has been insistent that even without being administered by the Franciscans, our parish will always be Franciscan because we are under the patronage of St. Francis of Assisi. I can’t say enough about how valuable it has been to have him support the core of our identity as we transitioned to being administered by the diocese. Father Michael’s efforts towards building the Franciscan Garden to help educate us on our heritage and his support of ensuring Franciscan values are at the heart of our 5-year pastoral plan will be a powerful support as we carry that forth.”

Monsignor Clay’s experience as a pastor also had practical benefits for St. Francis beyond his faith-building efforts. “When Monsignor arrived,” says Jacob House, “We had 3 million in Debt and 4.2 million in cash and savings. We forecast to end the current fiscal year with no debt, 4.6 million in cash and savings, and an endowment growth of 1.7 million parish-wide. The endowment is for student assistance, Justice and Peace, Catholic Education and Franciscan Spirituality, Lay Education, Columbarium, and Perpetual Care. Teachers have increased pay to be more in line with the State Standards. We also maintain a healthy maintenance reserve and have an all-time high number of registered parish households.  We expanded the Columbarium, ensuring there is ‘room in the inn’ for our departed parish family members for many years. We exceeded our BAA goal attainment for four years in a row.” As the continuous work with the Finance Council under his leadership has advanced, Jacob emphasizes, “Monsignor leaves us in great financial condition with a pristine campus and primed to continue working to get every parishioner, school family, and staff member in the boat and rowing in the same direction on evangelization and serving the world in the spirit of Francis.”

Truly faithful and practical on the business side as a pastor, Father Michael also touched the community with his heart. Kathy remembers specifically, “At a recent Reconciliation service, I witnessed two women supporting each other as they slowly walked to Michael to receive the Sacrament.  The joy in all three faces was palpable. I felt like I was witnessing the love and face of Christ in Michael. He truly lives out his priestly vows to care for the people of God.” Mae agrees and says he showed his heart through his support of the parishioners. “Among many other things, I have appreciated his support of women leadership in the Church. As part of our celebration of St. Phoebe last fall, several women had the opportunity to give witness talks at the Masses and share about the Synod and discussions of restoring women’s participation in the diaconate. As our group met with other groups across the country and worldwide, I was struck by how uncommon it was to receive the level of support we had.”

He also let his sense of humor and fun break out for all to see, often in public. Kathy shares, “Michael has a great sense of humor, especially at poking fun at himself. Our leadership team has shared many laughs during his four years at our parish.” Jacob remembers an exceptionally light moment during a Mass, and he isn’t alone: “I remember him screwing up a homily one time, laughing at himself, and leaving the entire congregation in stitches. I asked my family what they’ll remember most fondly about Monsignor, and my teenage son replied, ‘His organization and order. Nothing was random; everything had solid thinking and planning behind it.’ Then, a smile came across his face, and he added, ‘Except that one time when his homily took an ‘L’ and he admitted it, and everybody in the entire church laughed.’ The thing that struck us was that Monsignor Clay, who was still fairly new at the time, in shoes that must have been unimaginably difficult and anxiety-inducing to wear after the Franciscans left, had a moment so utterly relatable, dared to acknowledge it on the spot, and every person embraced him with a belly laugh full of empathy and acceptance.”

As Father Michael leaves and retires from his role, he will be missed and deeply appreciated at St. Francis, especially by those who worked closely with him. “I will miss his keen insights and intelligence,” says Kathy Sales, “and his dedication to the people of St. Francis. Michael has lived out his call from God with a sense of humor, keen wit, and dedication to our parish family in a way that has brought joy to God’s people.” Mae Villanueva agrees, adding, “I will miss many things! As the chair of the pastoral council, I so appreciate the depth and breadth of his knowledge and experience. He is thoughtful and truly listens to the ideas of the council members. I know that I can trust him to ensure we are on solid ground in any recommendation we make and that he will have my back because we have made sure decisions are well-considered. He stands firm for what is right while staying open to new information and educating others along the way. I am so grateful our parish had his steady hand to guide us through the transition from the friars and through COVID-19.”  Reflecting on his time serving alongside Monsignor Clay in RCIA, Jacob says, “I will miss his experience, diligence, and unique mix of charisms, especially teaching, and knowledge; and his Easter Vigil Exsultet, too!”

We wish Monsignor Michael Clay all our best and Godspeed, and we do so with a deep appreciation for his stewardship and leadership of St. Francis of Assisi Parish. Thank you for your humor, heart, and thoughtfulness during your tenure in our community; we will miss you.

Author: Mike Watson