A model of humility was Fr Kevin Joseph Clark, priest of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch for 64 years. Fr Kevin died on Monday, 7th September, 2020. He was 89.
Quietly spoken, profound and selfless, Fr Kevin could be seen as ascetic. But that would be to ignore his love of cars, particularly Citroens, his mechanical dexterity, his contribution to the Order of St John, his helping of fellow alcoholics.
As a preacher Fr Kevin seasoned his sermons with insights to Catholic faith drawn from his search for realism in the Gospel stories. Thus he inspired many among his congregations. He impressed upon them also the sacredness and dignity of Church rituals. He insisted on efficiency and decorum from altar servers, readers and other helpers at the altar. It was noted by many parishioners that his gentle exhortations prompted habitual latecomers to practise punctuality – and stay in their pews until the end.
Born in 1931 and raised in Addington, Fr Kevin always remembered seeing his father pedalling off on his bicycle to work at job schemes during the Great Depression. Kevin had two older sisters and two younger brothers. His primary schooling was with the Mission Sisters at the Addington Convent. Addington Catholics formed a “strong and healthy community” and the 1930s were “a good time to be around”, he said. Seeing ordinations of new priests there made a priestly vocation seem natural to him.
He attended St Bede’s College for secondary schooling from 1945 to 1949, before studying for the priesthood at Holy Cross College in Mosgiel. Holy Name Seminary in Christchurch had begun accepting beginner seminarians but Addington’s Parish Priest advised him to go straight to Mosgiel in 1950. He enjoyed his seven years there, partly because his handyman skills were often called upon for fix-it tasks. These provided welcome diversion from the “tightly disciplined” regime. He was ordained by Bishop Joyce in 1956.
His first appointment was as curate to Mairehau Parish. He then worked briefly as an assistant priest at Sockburn, under Fr Kane. When Fr Kane became Cathedral Administrator he asked for Fr Kevin as an assistant. This was approved and Fr Kevin worked in the Cathedral Parish for six years.
He then served consecutively at Greymouth, Hanmer Springs, Chatham Islands, Rakaia, Pleasant Point, Temuka, Avonhead, Ngahere (where he wrote the history of the Grey Valley parishes), Hawarden, Hornby, Hoon Hay, Timaru and Bryndwr. His transfer from Ngahere was to provide easier access to Christchurch so he could develop the diocesan archives.
Bishop Ashby had instituted a six-month limit for parish priests on the Chatham Islands because of the remoteness. Fr Kevin regretted the enforced brevity. It was a tough experience, he recollected, as the people’s shyness stalled conversation. Many maintained old superstitions but all were “good people and very hospitable”.
Bryndwr was Fr Kevin’s last tenure as a Parish Priest. After seven years there he retired. However he continued as a “supply priest”, saying Mass when and where needed until his health began to fail.
Bryndwr parishioners were “stunned” after the final blessing at a Sunday Mass. He paused and then announced simply: “I am an alcoholic”. He added that he was starting therapy soon and asked for prayerful support. As the humility of his statement sank in, the congregation burst into clapping.
After his therapy, Fr Kevin spoke of his experience to a small group he had asked to be his helpers. He was most saddened, he said, not for himself but for the numbers of young adults he met at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. “They were only 18 to early 20s and they had multiple addictions. I only had one,” he said. No wonder he did his best to encourage and guide these people.
History was a strong interest for Father Kevin. It drove him to action when he discovered historical items pertaining to the diocese that had been cast aside as rubbish and could easily have been dumped. Finding priceless relics stashed in boxes and cartons poked into half-hidden corners of the vast old Cathedral Presbytery, he tried to convince Bishop Joyce and the Cathedral Administrator, Fr Kane, to launch a preservation programme. The former was not interested; the latter suggested the items be thrown out.
As a junior curate, Fr Kevin devised a strategy to convince his superiors of the importance of historical documents. He sifted through the strewn stuff and stored the most interesting pieces in his room and in a concrete “cave” he had discovered behind a closed-off fireplace in the rambling old presbytery. Then he selected humorous anecdotes from them. When the cathedral staff’s dinner chat paused, he shared the yarns. The bishop and fellow priests enjoyed them. The bishop laughed loudly and, at last, gave in. He allowed Fr Kevin to gather and store historical items in an orderly fashion. So began the Diocesan Archives.
Over the next 50 years, working mostly alone, Fr Kevin organised the items and documents into an impressive collection. He was granted more space. In his spare moments he built what would become The Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives.
The institution became better known and attracted more items from far and wide. In retirement Fr Kevin stepped up his archive efforts. Volunteer workers joined him and he guided them in development of a comprehensive archival service. In failing health he oversaw the fitting-out of a temperature-controlled storage room and suitable working spaces. In his last years he was delighted to appoint professional archivist Triona Doocey as manager.
As a primary school lad Fr Kevin had become a cadet in the Order of St John. He would later serve the Order for 56 years. As he was transferred from parish to parish, he served in turn the Christchurch Sub-Centre of the Order, the Amuri Sub-Centre, the Timaru Sub-Centre and the Canterbury-Westland Centre.
In his six-months on the Chatham Islands he established and ran First Aid classes for 25 local residents. He was their instructor and examiner, roles usually restricted to medical practitioners.
Fr Kevin was elected to several St John committees. He was appointed Sub-Chaplain to the Order in 1977, with promotion to Chaplain in 1987. He was awarded the meritorious title Knight of Grace in 2009. Shortly before his death he received the Order’s Life Long Service Medal – “in formal recognition of his significant contribution”.
Fr Kevin enjoyed 20 years of retirement in a townhouse he had bought. He was interested in cars and able to service his beloved Citroen. He still served the diocese and maintained his interest in poetry and history. The latter interest had placed him in a difficult position when he chaired Bishop Ashby’s committee dealing with alterations to the cathedral. He admitted feeling “very uneasy, almost guilty” about decisions involving removal of historic features.
His retirement home was in Addington, a little west of where he had grown up. When he needed care he moved to Nazareth House, a little east of where he had grown up. Coming home to Addington was fitting as Fr Kevin identified with the suburb that was a working-class Catholic stronghold through much of the 20thCentury.
While he would never have spoken of himself as humble, Fr Kevin treasured humility in others. Referring to his deceased friend Bishop Barry Jones, in a homily in 2016, he said:
“The virtue of humility is something strange and very wonderful. I always found it something of a puzzling sort of virtue because it seemed to me a virtue in which we told about ourselves: ‘I am not very good’, ‘I’m pretty awful’, all of which is untrue.”
He added a favourite quote:
“Humility and truthfulness are much the same thing. You can’t have humility without great truthfulness because humility is about the truth. To be humble is to wish to be known as we really are”.
Sentiments that could have applied to himself.
Author: Michael Crean
Images from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives