Fr. Claude Lenehan, OFM
It’s often been asked, “Where in the world is Father Claude Lenehan?” If you had guessed Chicago, Green Bay, San Jose, Atlanta, Boston, Providence or Buffalo, you would have been right, and that was just in six weeks. And not too many years ago, if you had guessed Washington, Philadelphia, Rutherford, Paterson, or jail, you also would have been correct.
As a Franciscan friar with his 50-year ordination anniversary coming up next year, Fr. Claude’s ministries have been many and varied. Born to a typical Irish-Catholic family, he was raised by Rosamund and Daniel Lenehan in Passaic, N.J., along with brothers Dan and Art. He attended P.S. #3 for grammar school and St. Mary’s High School, Rutherford, N.J.
During senior year, he and his classmates made a retreat, and a talk on vocations “hit him between the eyes.” While it was the last thought in his head, which he fought for a while, he decided to see “what the seminary was all about.” No black suit went with him; he didn’t want to burden his family with the expense, since he wasn’t quite sure he’d be staying. But he eventually entered the Franciscan novitiate and began seven years of monastic rigor; the training had not changed in 500 years. In his words, “It was un-American!”
After ordination, he was first assigned to St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan; next, to St. Mary’s Church, Pompton Lakes, N.J. There, he became director of the high school CCD and CYO for the first crop of baby boomers. He was named pastor of St. Elizabeth’s Church, Wyckoff, N.J., where he remained for three years, until he came to St. Anne’s Church, Fair Lawn, N.J., as pastor, where he stayed for six years. An innovator from the beginning, he established the first parish council, the first parish board of education, the first Christian Family Movement groups (CFM), the first athletic council, and a proactive youth organization with Father Pat Sieber, OFM, and Lenora Mosca.
It was while Claude was at St. Anne’s that his interest in social justice work began. He invited to the parish a group of followers of Cesar Chavez who were promoting the California grape boycott. Their dedication inspired him, and after his term as pastor at St. Anne’s, he went on to study Spanish and worked with the migrant farm workers in Elmer, N.J.
At the same time, he was appointed to the newly-formed Office of Justice and Peace of the Franciscans. In 1976, he became an early founding member of the Inter-Faith Center for Corporate Responsibility. By purchasing small amounts of corporate stock, this group was able to attend annual board meetings and challenge the corporations on their labor and environmental practices. Their vision enabled them to reach out to the poor who had no access to credit and to empower them.
During a subsequent assignment from 1974 to 1982 in Washington, D.C., he lived in community and worked with a social action group that put him deeper into corporate responsibility and peace and justice causes. After some years of actively protesting the arms race, he was arrested in June 1982 during an anti-nuke march in Manhattan. In May 1983, there was a pray-in and read-in at the Capital Rotunda in Washington, D.C. He was arrested once more and spent two days in jail. He was a “hands-on” practitioner of civil disobedience.
In the ‘80s, it was on to the St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia, staffed by five Franciscan friars, five Franciscan nuns, eight full-time volunteers and many part-timers (all unsalaried). There was a soup kitchen which fed an average of 300 daily. A night shelter and a thrift shop were also part of the Inn’s mission.
In 1987, Claude moved to St. Anthony Shrine in Boston. There he became a board member of St. Francis House, the largest social service facility for the poor in New England. While there, he added a new ministry to his resume called Retrouvaille, a logical outgrowth of CFM and Marriage Encounter movements. Retrouvaille is an outreach program for troubled marriages, and is presented much the same as a Marriage Encounter on intense weekends with lay facilitators and a priest. It is Catholic-based but not limited to Catholic couples and is nationally promulgated. Claude was asked to serve on the national board, but he declined as he would have had to leave the Ministry of the Word. From 1994 until the present, he has worked with the Ministry of the Word team based in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., presenting weekly missions to parishes up and down the East Coast.
But if you think that is all work and no play for the good Father, please know that Claude still skis, plays golf and tennis, and has body surfed the Jersey Shore as often as possible each summer through all his various Franciscan assignments. He is also a faithful New York Giants fan. And that is why Claude was honored at St. Anne’s on October 23, 2004 with the Servitio Award.
The prayer he read at an arms bazaar protest service in Washington, D.C., September 1981 sums up the essence of this Franciscan:
“Lord, we have confidence in your care and concern, and ask you to bless peacemakers even as the world favors and blesses warriors. Help us to be strong, Lord. We want the country to be strong, strong enough to love you above all, to depend, and trust in you above all. We want to be number one, Lord, but not in the capacity to destroy, number one in the capacity to love, to heal and to reconcile. We want to be powerful, Lord, not to threaten the world with destruction, but to show forth the power of your love and concern. We want to be ready and alert, Lord, ready for you when you come in glory. Help us to be channels of your peace."
From The Spire,
Newsletter of St. Anne Church,
Fair Lawn, N.J.
Reprinted with permission
—This essay was written in 2005 when Fr. Claude was serving with the Ministry-of-the-Word program in Ho-ho-kus, N.J. It appeared in the June 2005 issue of The Anthonian magazine.