But when he was in a sophomore English class as a seminarian at Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass., his teacher called on him for an answer even though he had not raised his hand. The teacher praised his student for his comments on the meaning of something they had read.
“From then on, I was on the Dean’s List,” said Father Cleary, now parochial vicar at Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Church in Bennington and St. John the Baptist Church in North Bennington.
His current assignment has brought him full circle to this southern Vermont community where he spent a year of his seminary training in the Holy Cross order’s novitiate, once located in Bennington. Between stops here, he has been a parochial vicar, inner city pastor, novice director, provincial of the Eastern Province, Rome-based superior general of the worldwide order for priests and brothers and chaplain for the Monastic Family of Bethlehem of the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno.
He moved to North Bennington to begin his current ministry in August.
“I love parish ministry in general,” said the 70-year-old priest who grew up in Queens, N.Y. He appreciates being able to share all of life with people, from the good times to the bad, from celebrations to mourning. “You get to know your parishioners. They have the strength of humanity. It all harkens back to that English class. What is literature but an expression of humanity’s joys and struggles?”
He feels privileged to be a priest. “People open up their heart to you. You gain so much strength from their heroic virtue lived every day,” he added.
The son of a New York City police officer and a stay-at-home mother, Father Clear has a single younger brother and an older sister who has five children and 16 grandchildren.
He always wanted to be a priest. “It was always in me,” he said during an interview at the Bennington parish center. “I can’t remember wanting to be anything else.”
His family life revolved around Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Bayside where he became an altar boy shortly after his First Communion. He attended the parish school through eighth grade then walked a mile to attend Holy Cross High School in Flushing.
He had thought about becoming a diocesan priest in New York, but in high school one of the Holy Cross brothers suggested he consider the Congregation of Holy Cross.
He was ordained in 1973 at Holy Cross Parish in South Easton, Mass.
Father Cleary – who grew up in a family in which education was emphasized – has earned five degrees: a bachelor’s degree in English from Stonehill College; a master’s in theology from Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., a master’s in counseling psychology from Loyola University in Chicago; and a master’s and doctorate in formative spirituality from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
For him, education is a way to help one think and reflect on life.
When he was in the novitiate in Bennington, one of the changes that came about after Vatican II was that the seminarians did not have to earn their undergraduate degree in philosophy. So he and three other members of his class of 35 seminarians decided to major in English. “I thought it would be easier,” he recalled with a smile.
So with a nod to their future English degree, the four seminarians snuck out of their rooms one night to sleep on the grave of poet Robert Frost in Old Bennington. “We thought we’d do better in English with him than without him,” he added with a twinkle in his eye.
A former marathon runner, Father Cleary now enjoys walking and hiking, and besides his sacramental, Catholic school and visitation ministries, he is working with parents and sponsors of confirmation students in both parishes.
Fluent in Spanish thanks to a Maryknoll language school in Bolivia with experience ministering to migrant workers, he would like to resume that type of work if there is a need for it in southern Vermont.
- Published in Parish