ROCHESTER — As the time drew near to begin an evening prayer service for Bishop Emeritus Matthew H. Clark, his family members reluctantly stopped sharing tales about their beloved uncle and great-uncle.
They had spent many minutes Jan. 29 at Sacred Heart Cathedral recalling a man who loved kidding around with them — yet who also offered wisdom and spiritual support whenever needed, despite his busy schedule as leader of the Diocese of Rochester.
“I always admired Uncle Matt’s ability to remain kind and patient and loving in any situation I ever saw him in,” said Jane Early, one of Bishop Clark’s five nieces.
Bishop Clark shared his special qualities with people from all walks of life, she added.
“All humans require dignity and respect. He was the closest thing I could imagine Jesus to be,” Early remarked about her uncle, who died Jan. 22 at age 85.
Bishop Clark’s presence spurred excitement
Early and her four sisters are the children of Helen Early, Bishop Clark’s only sibling, and her husband, James. Many times during Bishop Clark’s 33 years as bishop of Rochester, he highlighted encounters with his nieces in his “Along the Way” column in the Catholic Courier.
The sisters noted that Bishop Clark’s visits to the family’s hometown of Waterford, near Albany, were always eagerly anticipated. Grace Boss — the eldest of the nieces — said excitement would run especially high when then-Father Clark arrived for summer stays from Rome, Italy, where he served from 1972-74 as assistant spiritual director and 1974-79 as spiritual director for seminarians at the Pontifical North American College.
“We’d all be at the airport saying, ‘Is that Uncle Matt’s plane?’ Then when he got off the plane, we’d all attack him,” Boss remarked. “We couldn’t wait to see him. It was an event.”
All five sisters — ranging in age from 3 to 11 — were on hand when their uncle was installed as bishop of Rochester on June 26, 1979, during a Mass at the Rochester Community War Memorial. The Early girls and their mother brought up the gifts for Mass as an on-site congregation of about 10,000 people plus a television audience looked on.
Margaret McMahan-Warner, who was only 6 years old at the time, recalled the special greeting her 41-year-old uncle gave her as she handed him one of the gifts.
“He said to me, ‘How about a kiss from my goddaughter?’” she recalled.
Excitement over Bishop Clark’s presence at family gatherings remained a constant over the years, said Megan Neff, a grandniece and daughter of Jane Early.
“We would fight about who got to sit next to him at the dinner table,” she said.
Bishop emeritus’ sense of humor stood out
Boss noted that Bishop Clark also was highly approachable for friends of the Early sisters, although they initially were hesitant about coming face-to-face with a prominent public figure.
“All our friends would say, ‘What should we call him?’ We’d say, ‘Call him Uncle Matt,’” Boss recalled.
Bishop Clark’s engaging personality was enhanced by his playful nature, his nieces observed. One example Boss cited involved her sister Mary Ellen who, as a 7-year-old, “was very proud of her arm muscles,” Boss said.
“Every time Uncle Matt came home to visit, she would say, ‘Feel my muscles, Uncle Matt.’ He would feel them as she flexed and always say, ‘Oh my goodness, Mary Ellen, they are like bands of steel,’ and then give her a big hug,” Boss noted.
However, McMahan-Warner said she and her sisters weren’t always receptive to his hugs — and for good reason.
“He’d come back from running on summer days, all sweaty, and say to us (jokingly), ‘How about a hug?’ and we would squeal,” she remarked.
Bishop Clark’s youngest niece, Kathleen Early, said she routinely addressed her uncle as “The Harv” — a reference to the bishop’s middle name of Harvey, which also was his father’s first name. She said the two of them loved watching comedy movies together: “He laughed so hard, he’d cry.”
Kathleen Early added that Bishop Clark’s sense of humor endured throughout his life, even as he dealt with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Even when he wasn’t talking at all, he would always laugh,” she said, referring to her visits with him in recent years while he resided at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse in Pittsford.
Bishop Clark exhibited kindness in many ways
Although he enjoyed many fun times with his family, Boss pointed out that Bishop Clark also was drawn to those in the most difficult of circumstances. She noted that she accompanied him 11 times to South America, where he visited residents living in extreme poverty who were served by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brazil and the Sisters of Mercy in Chile.
For many years, Boss also traveled by train to Rochester to be on hand when Bishop Clark celebrated midnight Christmas Masses at the cathedral. The following mornings, they would go to the Monroe County Jail where Bishop Clark again presided at Mass before the pair headed to Waterford to catch up with the rest of their family.
“It was an incredible way to start Christmas Day,” Boss said of her uncle’s dedication to Christmas liturgies at the jail. “It really resonated — that wow, this is the day Christ was born, and Uncle Matt wanted to be with the inmates in the prison. They were absolutely thrilled that he was there. It was a fine example of following in Jesus’ footsteps, for sure.”
McMahan-Warner recalled a more subtle act of kindness by her uncle, an avid runner, when she became interested in jogging as a teen.
“Whenever he came home, I’d ask him, ‘Can I jog with you?’ and he would always say yes,” McMahan-Warner said. However, she added, it took her a long time to realize that he was a very fast runner, and he had deliberately slowed his normal pace so she could keep up.
Nieces recall Bishop Clark as vital role model
Bishop Clark’s patience also proved valuable in personal matters for his nieces, who said he readily offered a compassionate ear and calming influence whenever they faced challenges and needed a reliable sounding board.
Jane Early noted that her uncle’s attentiveness toward his nieces, extending back to their childhood days, has rubbed off on her.
“I took that example into the classroom with me and as a parent,” said Early, who teaches at Pembroke High School in Genesee County. “Children are special people, and they require a little more patience and understanding.”
Early’s daughter said the examples set by her great-uncle likewise have served her well in adulthood. Megan Neff noted that a good chunk of her career thus far has involved service — working with people facing substance-abuse and domestic-violence issues, and in her current position assisting homeless youths in Sarasota, Fla.
“Being around Uncle Matt and seeing his life of service led to my calling,” Neff said. “He just taught me that you’ve got to give back to the community you live in.”
“I just always wanted to be like him,” McMahan-Warner added. “He was my role model.”Tags: Bishop Matthew H. Clark