Father Douglas Kent Clark, pastor of St. Matthew Catholic Church for the past six years, retired earlier this week, and Father John Johnson stepped into that role on Thursday. However, a few details pertaining to the transition remain the same.
Father Clark’s retirement plans include staying in Statesboro and serving as Pastor Emeritus for St. Matthew Parish.
“I’ve had six very happy years here,” Clark said. “I’m glad I don’t have to uproot and go somewhere else.”
Father Johnson is a familiar face in the area, having served for the last two years as the Catholic Campus Ministry Chaplain at Georgia Southern University, in addition to his pastoral roles in the Claxton, Glennville, Sandhill and Pembroke areas.
Clark, who turns 70 in December, has known the new pastor, junior to him by 30 years, since Johnson was 17.
“We met at the Cathedral in Savannah on the day he was accepted into the seminary program,” Clark said. “Father Brett Brannen, Statesboro native and former priest at St. Matthew’s, introduced us.”
The two became fast friends, visiting frequently, and got to know each other even better when Johnson was assigned in Savannah and began an intense study of Latin with Clark. Both men are linguists and share the commonality of Latin fluency, with Clark also being fluent in several other languages, like Italian, while Johnson speaks Spanish fluently.
“He’s a scripture scholar and linguist,” Johnson said about the man he considers to be his mentor. “He’s a priests’ priest, often helping others move into that vocation. He prepares men to go abroad for study.”
Friends and roommates
The two, well-educated scholars share an interesting sense of humor and often joke and banter with each other. They also now share the rectory, with both residing there on property.
“It’s a great joy not to leave this place that I love,” Clark said. Johnson was quick to quip, “And live with me,” to which Clark responded, “and live with my best friend.” Johnson is especially excited about that relationship because he said Clark is the cook.
“I’m an extrovert,” Clark said, “and having Johnny actually living here is great. Living alone can get tedious. I enjoy company.”
“Pastors and priests need ministry just as much as anybody else,” concurred Johnson. “Some people have that gift of brotherhood; Doug is good at brotherhood and encourages other priests regularly.”
Both men love books and apparently Clark’s books number in the thousands. Clark comes from a background of academia and religion, as his grandfathers, paternal and maternal respectively, held the professions of Methodist preacher and research chemist.
A calling to the church
Clark said he left organized religion after eighth grade, but became impressed by the Catholic culture of Europe while on a six-week intensive study of the French language in Switzerland during his junior year of high school.
After frightening complications from a bout with appendicitis during his senior year, he said he awoke from surgery with the thought, “I have no appendix, but I do have a soul,” which led to further investigation of the Catholic church, attending Mass where he felt “at home” and a decision to pursue instructions in the Catholic faith.
Clark graduated from The College of William and Mary in Virginia with a history degree and received his Licentiate in biblical theology from The Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy.
Clark served in various roles over the years before arriving in Statesboro in 2013, including founding pastor at St. Anne Parish, Richmond Hill; campus minister at Pacelli High School, Columbus; Parochial Vicar of St. Anne’s Parish; editor of the Southern Cross, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Savannah; director of many theater productions, that included Savannah’s Benedictine Military School and Saint Vincent’s Academy; pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Port Wentworth, and Latin and religion teacher at St. Leo’s University extension program for more than 25 years.
Johnson, born and raised in Augusta, said he felt a call to the priesthood during high school. He began an official period of discernment and studies in philosophy at the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.
Johnson said he grew restless during the college years and thought of pursuing medical school and entertained the idea of married life.
“God, however, had a different plan,” Johnson said. “Without warning and beyond my choosing, God began to speak to me in the quiet hours of that night. He was speaking to me not audibly, but intensely and clearly. I was going my own way but the Lord wanted me to go another way.
“It is difficult for me to describe, but everything had changed – my perspective, my feelings and my desires. My heart was flooded with peace; a spiritual calm came over me. I realized that God was close – that he had always been close.”
Johnson entered into formation for the priesthood and was ordained in Savannah, beginning his first assignment at Sacred Heart Parish in Warner Robins. Johnson completed further studies at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, DC.
Johnson said his first job as pastor of St. Matthew’s is “to watch, observe, ease in.” He said he has a lot to learn and a lot of people within the parish to get to know, though he already knows the local “Catholic Eagles,” as they call themselves.
“My goal is to be present. That’s part of the vow of celibacy that a lot of people don’t understand. We take that vow to be available at any time of the day or middle of the night for our parishioners.”
Johnson’s plans include working with the Catholic Medical Association, continuing with the GS campus ministry, expanding St. Matthew’s campus ministry and learning how to best serve the growing immigrant population.
‘To minister, not administer’
And, he knows he’ll have the support and help of his fellow priest and mentor. “I will be Plan B,” said Clark, “if he can’t get there. I can cover masses and confessions and the needs of the sick. To minister, but not administer – that’s my new motto.”
Despite recent knee surgery, which led partly to his decision to pass the torch, Clark hopes to do some traveling during retirement and already has a trip planned for Ireland. “I still write for the Southern Cross and I plan to paint. Still very active, but at a slower pace.”
Johnson said he is looking forward to the new opportunities in Statesboro. “Some changes are hard, but, at the end of the day, we’re ministers of Jesus Christ and his teachings.
“I’m very excited about being here. We think it will be a smooth transition, but I know I have big shoes to fill.”
At that, Father Clark laughed, breaking the serious moment and causing Father Johnson to chuckle.
Raising one foot, the 5’1” priest who often says, “Good things come in small packages,” smiled broadly at his nearly 5’11” successor.