Retired Rochester, N.Y., bishop dies, recalled for ministry of ‘abundant love and care’

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Bishop Matthew Clark
Retired Bishop Matthew H. Clark of Rochester, N.Y., pictured in a 2019 photo, died Jan. 22, 2023, at age 85. Bishop Clark headed the upstate diocese for 33 years, the second longest tenure for a head of the diocese in its history. (OSV News photo/Jeff Witherow, Catholic Courier)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (OSV News) — Retired Bishop Matthew H. Clark, shepherd of the Diocese of Rochester for more than 33 years, died early Jan. 22 at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse in Pittsford following a period of declining health. He was 85.

“United as a diocesan family, we now accompany Bishop Clark with our prayers, especially at holy Mass, asking the angels and the saints to receive his soul and present him to the Eternal High Priest, Our Savior Jesus Christ,” said Rochester Bishop Salvatore R. Matano said in announcing the death of his predecessor.

“Kindly also pray for Bishop Clark’s family and friends who mourn his death and pray for him; may they be consoled by our faith in eternal life — a kingdom of light and peace where we will behold the face of God,” he said.

Bishop Clark will lie in repose at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester for public visitation Jan. 29 from 3 p.m. local time until evening prayer begins at 7 p.m. On Jan. 30, he will lie in repose from 10 to 11:30 a.m. before his noon funeral Mass. Interment will be in the bishop’s crypt at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rochester.

Matthew Harvey Clark was born July 15, 1937, and grew up in the town of Waterford near Albany. He attended Catholic Central High School in Troy; Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts; and Mater Christi Seminary in Albany.

He formed an early connection to the Rochester Diocese as a seminarian at the former St. Bernard’s Seminary, which he attended from 1957-59.

Father James Lawlor’s friendship with Bishop Clark dates back to their days together at St. Bernard’s.

“He was very much a part of the life of the seminary,” said Father Lawlor, a senior priest of the Rochester Diocese, told the Catholic Courier, newspaper of the Diocese of Rochester, noting that the bishop was a good student and athlete. “He didn’t stand aloof; he was very friendly.”

However, he said he didn’t detect any early signs that Bishop Clark would someday become bishop. “In those days you don’t think of being a bishop,” he remarked. “You’re just trying to survive and be ordained.”

Father Lawlor said Bishop Clark was “such a gracious individual. He just had a real interest in each person, and took each person seriously.”

Bishop Clark completed his priestly formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Albany, New York, at the Church of Christ the King in Rome on Dec. 19, 1962.

Over the next decade, then-Father Clark served as a teacher, parish priest, vice chancellor and priests’ personnel director in the Albany Diocese. He also earned licentiates from the Pontifical Gregorian University in sacred theology (in 1963) and canon law (in 1966). Father Clark then served from 1972-79 at the Pontifical North American College as assistant spiritual director and later spiritual director for seminarians.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York has been a friend since Bishop Clark was his spiritual director at the North American College in Rome in the early 1970s.

In a Jan. 22 letter addressed to Bishop Matano, Cardinal Dolan wrote: “While, given the fragile state of his health these recent years, we realized that he would soon be going home, his death still leaves a void in our lives, as we have savored and counted upon his gentle, wise, holy presence for decades, myself since I met him in 1973. Like you, I praise God for his person, his vocation, his long life, and ask the Jesus he loved and served to embrace Matthew for all eternity.”

On April 23, 1979, Bishop Clark was named to lead the Rochester Diocese by St. John Paul II, who ordained him a bishop in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 27 of that year. At only 41 years old, he was installed as Rochester’s eighth bishop June 26, 1979, continuing in that role until his 2012 retirement at age 75, the age at which canon law requires bishops to submit their resignation to the pope.

Bishop Clark’ s tenure was the second-longest in diocesan history, second only to the 40-year reign of founding Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid.

Father Paul Tomasso, current diocesan vicar general, was one of the first priests ordained by Bishop Clark in 1981 and served as the bishop’s secretary from 1986-96.

“Bishop Clark was someone who listened and encouraged others, especially children and young people, when visiting schools, colleges or on the church steps after a parish celebration. He believed we all can enrich one another by using our talents and blessings for the community. He easily brought warmth and respect into every meeting,” Father Tomasso said.

“Bishop Clark was a very compassionate and prayerful person, personally pained by the violence, suffering and poverty that seems to never go away,” Father Tomasso added. “Aware that these are big problems, he encouraged hope and effort just the same.”

Father Kevin McKenna, pastor of St. Theodore Parish in Gates, said that he knew Bishop Clark well from their work together at the Diocese of Rochester’s Pastoral Center, where Father McKenna served as diocesan vice chancellor (1984-88), chancellor (1992-2001) and director of legal services (1991-2001).

The priest also resided with Bishop Clark at Rochester’s Sacred Heart Cathedral, where Father McKenna served as rector from 2008-21.

He said Bishop Clark “greatly depended on his office staff for administrative support, since he much preferred to be in the parishes and interacting with the pastoral staff and parishioners.”

Father McKenna said he “greatly admired” Bishop Clark’s “obvious love and affection” for his family “and them for him.” He came to know the bishop’s family from their many visits to the rectory.

“My only regret is that I never could convince him to support the Toronto Blue Jays instead of his beloved Yankees,” Father McKenna quipped. “It was always the source for good-humored bantering between us. He always took time to call me or send me an email after a game, before I lived with him at the cathedral, in case I had missed a victory of the Yankees over the Jays.”

“I will greatly miss his kindness and friendship,” Father McKenna said.

Deacon Edward Giblin, diocesan director of the permanent diaconate, noted that Bishop Clark ordained the diocese’s first class of permanent deacons in 1982.

“Both personally and professionally, Bishop Clark was always very supportive of the permanent deacons, their wives and families,” said Deacon Giblin, who was ordained in 2000. The diocese’s deacons join “the rest of the faithful in mourning his passing and commending him to the loving arms of the Servant Christ,” he added.

In retirement, Bishop Clark immersed himself in leading retreats and missions. In 2019, he announced that he had been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and a year later, he moved to the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse.

Mercy Sister Mary Ann Binsack began in 2001 as administrator of Bishop Clark’s office and has remained in that role ever since, handling his correspondence and official business.

“I have listened to many stories in the last few days from sisters, priests, family and friends who came to pray for and thank the bishop. They were all stories of how, in one way or another, he had touched them through listening to a concern, writing a note of encouragement, confirming a daughter or son, visiting a sick relative or enjoying a meal at their home,” Sister Binsack said.

“The stories went on and on,” she added. “To me, these stories summed up his life as one lived as a man of deep faith and integrity who ministered with and for his people with abundant love and care.”

Bishop Clark’s episcopal motto was “God’s love endures forever.” He referred to love in a 2012 Catholic Courier story, giving a hushed, emotional response when asked about the legacy he hoped to leave as shepherd of the diocesan faithful.

“I would like to be remembered as someone who loved them,” Bishop Clark said.

Mike Latona is a staff writer at the Catholic Courier, newspaper of the Diocese of Rochester.

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