Father Clarence W. Gardner, who spent most of his 64-year priesthood serving Auburn Catholics in numerous ministries, died Sept. 27, 2006, at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse in Pittsford after a long illness. He was 91 years old.
“He was the kindest, most compassionate, generous man,” said his close friend Sister Walter Anne O’Malley, SSJ. “Father Gardner gave his all to everything he did. He loved Auburn, he loved the people, he loved St. Alphonsus.”
Father Gardner grew up in Rochester’s Holy Redeemer Parish and attended Holy Redeemer and St. Ambrose schools, as well as Aquinas Institute. He went on to attend St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries in Rochester, and was ordained in 1942.
He served as assistant pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in Elmira (1942-44); Our Lady of Good Counsel, Rochester (1944-46); St. Alphonsus, Auburn, (1946-54); St. Anthony of Padua, Rochester, (1954-56); St. Dominic, Shortsville (1956-57); and Holy Rosary, Rochester (1957-59).
In 1959 Father Gardner became chaplain of Auburn Correctional Facility and Mercy Hospital in Auburn, positions he held for the next 19 years. In a 2002 Catholic Courier story, Father Gardner noted that he founded a Catholic group-therapy program for prisoners, and also helped prisoners find jobs after their release.
“It gave them some idea that they could improve,” he told the Courier.
The prison ministry had long-lasting effects, according to Sister O’Malley, who said three former inmates continued to send him gifts of gratitude every Christmas.
In 1978 Father Gardner took the pastorate of St. Alphonsus, and he remained in that post until his 1986 retirement. He remained highly active in hospital ministry and also was involved with the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Daughters of America.
After his retirement, Father Gardner continued to reside at St. Alphonsus as pastor emeritus, leading Marian devotions and speaking to parishioners about church history. Father Louis Vasile, pastor of St. Alphonsus for the past eight years, noted that Father Gardner also took regular turns celebrating weekend liturgies.
“When you think of pastors, the man covered every age group. I think he impacted every phase of pastoral life — not just because of longevity, but he was involved from head to toe,” said Father Vasile, an Auburn native who knew Father Gardner from childhood.
Father Gardner’s greatest passion of all was his involvement at Blessed Trinity School — now St. Joseph’s School — where he taught Latin and offered Masses for students.
“He was always in that school and he always ministered to the kids. That was his first love and his last love,” Father Vasile said.
Sister O’Malley, who was principal of Blessed Trinity and St. Joseph’s for 34 years, said the affection was a two-way street.
“He was with the children and they loved him. Every little one from the kindergarten on up would know who he was,” she said, recalling that she once found Father Gardner demonstrating Native American dances and songs to the youngsters.
Father Gardner had lived at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse since October 2003. Sister O’Malley, who also resides there, noted that for Father Gardner’s 91st birthday Sept. 9, Father Vasile put big cards up at St. Alphonsus and had parishioners sign them. They were then delivered to the beloved priest at the motherhouse.
“We would read to him the messages from the people, and he enjoyed that,” Sister O’Malley said.
Father Gardner is survived by his sister, Elizabeth LaTorre; nieces, Bonnie Anne Hartman and Elizabeth M. (Richard) Fleming; nephew, Herbert Hartman Jr.; aunt, Frances Hill; and several grandnieces and grandnephews.
Bishop Matthew H. Clark was scheduled to celebrate the funeral Mass for Father Gardner Oct. 2 at St. Alphonsus Church. Interment was set for St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Fleming.
Contributions in his memory may be made to St. Joseph’s School, 89 E. Genesee St., Auburn, NY 13021.