Father Clement Gardner can look back on the 47 years since he was ordained a priest and see a path that zigzags from point to point.
"God draws straight with crooked lines," said Gardner who, called it one of the axioms of life.
He became a senior priest Tuesday, retiring after completing almost half of his full-time commitment at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Hollidaysburg. He was the pastor there for 23 years.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich) Father Clement Gardner, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Parish in Hollidaysburg, became a senior pastor and officially retired on Tuesday. Gardner, who will be 73 in August, was ordained 47 years ago. He plans to do some fly fishing and maybe some writing in his retirement
Unlike many of his colleagues, Gardner was not appointed to a church after seminary. Instead, he was assigned to Mercy Hospital in Johnstown, where he was the chaplain for 16 years.
During that time, he also was an assistant pastor at the former St. Rochus Parish and taught religion classes at Bishop McCort Catholic High School.
Gardner, who loves to teach, enriched his experience at Bishop McCort by becoming the girls basketball coach after the WPIAL approved girls competitive sports in the early 1970s.
Bishop McCort had girls interested in playing basketball but no coach.
"In those days, you had to teach to coach," Gardner said. Not an expert in basketball, he agreed to take on the job because he knew he could work with kids. In his second year as coach, Gardner recruited an assistant who knew the game, and the girls' season took off.
"I coached one of the first Catholic basketball teams to make the state playoffs," he said with a smile. "They were very good."
Whether in sports or in life, Gardner knows a lot about picking up the ball and running with it when necessary.
During his time in Johnstown, the city experienced the flood of 1977 when 85 people lost their lives.
He said the experience taught him the importance of leaders taking action at a time when communities seemed to be paralyzed by the devastation. He remembers St. Rochus using high lifts to clear the mud and installing showers in the parking lot. The church was cleaned, and tetanus shots were obtained from the hospital.
"The church fed a couple of thousand people a day," he said.
People donated clothing, went door-to-door offering food and prayed with others. To add a little levity to a difficult time, the church arranged for a polka band to entertain and served ice cream one night.
"It taught you to reach out and touch people," Gardner said.
As a young priest, he also learned to take one day at a time by working with patients at Mercy in the first hospital-based detox center in Pennsylvania.
After Johnstown, Gardner took a sabbatical and went to Boston where he continued his education.
In all, Gardner has five degrees.
"I like to study. I went to good schools so I would be able to teach," he said.
His next role was to be the first director of ongoing formation for clergy. Gardner said the the position still exists but is now part time.
In that role, he set up educational programs, retreats and worked with new and transitional priests as well as those who were retiring.
At age 50, he was finally assigned his first and only parish - St. Michael's.
"I had energy and enthusiasm," he recalled. "I had always wanted a suburban church with a school," he said.
Looking back, he believes that all his previous experiences were some of those crooked lines God was drawing to get him to that point.
"Administering a department at the hospital, being a teacher and working with priests provided great preparation for a parish experience," he said.
He said two weeks after he arrived at St. Michael's, they held their first vacation Bible school.
"I just loved it," he said.
The church has held Bible school every summer since with Gardner often working with the kids. This year, he played a ring master for a circus parade to go along with the theme, "Parade Around Our Father."
He noted that St. Michael's has three choirs, and it has been a wonderful experience working with them as well as the religious education program and the mission parish program with Jamaica as well as other ministries.
Gardner said his best memories of St. Michael's are how all the people worked together and served the community.
"People shared their gifts, talent and time. I was delighted to be a facilitator to that and help people use their gifts," he said.
Mary Jo Lanzel, director of volunteer ministries, knows firsthand how Gardner encouraged people to use their talents.
"Whenever I needed a volunteer, he would suggest people who were good for a certain task. Father Gardner made a point to know everybody and what they did. He would speak to everyone," she said.
Lanzel called Gardner "a wonderful person. He's friendly, outgoing, easy to work with."
Tom Kunkle, director of music for St. Michael's would agree.
"He and I had a remarkable working relationship," Kunkle said. "He had tremendous support for the music program and allowed me to build it."
The church now has an adult choir, a children's choir, a contemporary choir and a choir for funerals.
Kunkle said when it came to changing the church's sound system, he informed Gardner that it would be expensive.
"He never said no," Kunkle said. "He relied on me."
Marty Culp, chairman of the parish council, called Gardner a good communicator, especially when working with council on church projects.
"He is really organized, " Culp said. "He did a good job of getting his wishes and desires across in a clear manner so council could provide him with the feedback he wanted. "
Janet Klingbeil, church secretary, admires his patience.
She said if she was unclear about new information, "he would stop what he was doing and explain it to me. Whether the explanation took 2 minutes or 20 minutes, he would make sure I understood it better."
Klingbeil said she will miss Gardner's way of explaining everything - even in his sermons. She said he would tie a story or a joke to his message. She said he did that because people would remember the story and associate it with the message.
Culp said he also will miss Gardner's sermons.
"He makes everybody in the audience feel like he is talking directly to them. He has a way with humor and uses good examples to explain his message. You always knew exactly what he was talking about."
Gardner seems to be known throughout the area for his weekend messages.
"He's a gifted preacher," said Chuck Monts, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hollidaysburg and a member of the Hollidaysburg Ministerium.
He said Gardner's sermons were encouraging and directional.
"He would use humor to lead to a spiritually poignant truth," Monts said.
Monts said Gardner will be missed by the ministerium, including himself.
"He is a source of wisdom and creativity. He was full of ideas to support and assist the ministerium in the ways it wanted to go," he said.
"I will greatly miss him as a colleague and a brother in Christ," Monts said.
As a senior priest, Gardner will continue to share his gifts with the diocese. He plans to fill in where he is needed and perhaps do some writing on transition periods in the Catholic church during his lifetime, such as the election of the first Catholic president and Vatican II.
"I was in the right place at the right time with the right interests," he said of his vocational path.