August 15th, 2023 at 7pm there will be a celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the passing of legendary labor and community activist priest Msgr. Clement Kern. The celebration will be held at Most Holy Trinity Church, located at 1050 Porter Street in Detroit’s Corktown community, his home parish for decades.
During his tenure as the parish priest, the church would become a well-known center from which he would minister to the poor and the Mexican American and Puerto Rican community. His advocacy would lead to the establishment of a wide array of community, civic, social services, fraternal, labor, Latino and other organizations, many which exist to this date. Presiding over the mass will be southwest Detroit’s own native and now Newark, New Jersey’s Cardinal Joseph Tobin. Co-celebrants include Msgr. Charles Kosanke and Father Tom Sutherland. The lead organization for this celebration is the Father Clement H. Kern Foundation.
In a previous EL CENTRAL article (March 23, 2023) I briefly detailed my and others’ recollections of Kern’s community-based work. One of the founding and still active members of Father Kern Foundation, the legendary Vic Venegas, met with Roberto Munoz and myself to discuss the August 15th memorial mass and to share at length the impact Msgr. Kern had on them personally. It turned out to be a free-wheeling conversation of over 2 1/2 hours with Vic and Roberto.
First some background on these two individuals. Roberto Munoz is a long-time historian, retired school counselor and community activist who over the years participated in a number of community and educational organizations and helped found Casa de Unidad before retiring as a school counselor at Western High in southwest Detroit. Additionally, he played a major role in documenting the impact widespread repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the Great Depression had on our Detroit community.
Many of us who grew up in the Corktown community during the late 50’s, into the 60’s and early 70’s will recognize Vic Venegas’ name. He was a tireless youth leader and coach and for a while served as the director of Casa Maria located on the intersection of Labrosse and Trumbull. It is no exaggeration to say Vic was revered by many young people during his tenure there and that he personally impacted hundreds of youth in his lifetime of community work.
Father Kern arrived at Most Holy Trinity in 1943. Vic who started kindergarten there in 1947 remembers that in his 1st grade Father Kern would come in to meet the kids. The second time Vic saw Father Kern he asked him to be an altar boy. It would not be long before Vic would accompany Father Kern on numerous chores and projects. As Vic got older, he was assigned more important responsibilities. In that process he was mentored by Father Kern. His guidance led Venegas, in his early teens, to organize and coach area youth.
In 1961, Father Kern asked Venegas to take over the sports program at Holy Trinity when he was 19. At age 22 he was appointed President of Holy Trinity’s Credit Union. Soon Vic caught the attention of the League of Catholic Women which operated the Casa Maria community center and in 1968 they asked him to assume the position of director when he was 26. By then he was coaching three sports and had developed a community reputation. After assuming the directorship, he expanded its programming and impact, hiring well known college athletes as a way to show Casa Maria youth they too could achieve success.
Vic and Roberto reflected on Father Kern’s strong desire for and practice in developing Latino leadership. He would go to Mexico every February to further his appreciation of the country’s culture and language and in return host Father Garcia who would come up from Mexico. Roberto Munoz mentioned that many in the community considered Kern “a Miracle Worker”. In often unexpected ways he would secure resources enabling him to provide basic needs to his parishioners and others. They discussed how in 1961 after the school was condemned, Father Kern went to Teamster Union President Jimmy Hoffa who secured $250,000 for the building of a new school.
Kern would attend every labor event he possibly could thus becoming known as Detroit’s labor priest. Due to his friendship with union leaders like Marta Wolfgang at the Waitress/Waiters Union and Paul Allen with the Steelworkers Union among others he would “put in calls” to secure jobs for those in need. He built relationships with religious leaders of other faiths such as Rabbi Hertz who organized clothing drives for the parish. His work with the homeless and alcoholics was notable. He was a regular fixture on nearby “Skid Row”. Father Kern would secure burial plots for Skid Row residents who had recently passed away. This commitment and care led him to help start Alcoholics Anonymous chapters in the city.
Interestingly Father Kern could easily mingle with the well to do and politicians. He was known to first attend a Ford family event or wedding and that same night make an appearance on “skid row”. Roberto Munoz recalled that sometime in the late 60’s or early 70’s one of the city’s major newspapers listed Father Kern as one of the top five “movers and shakers” in the metro Detroit area. They laughed as they discussed Father Kern’s “Shakedown Society”. Father Kern was adept in getting donations from top business leaders like Henry Ford, politicians like Mayor Cavanaugh, union leaders, business owners etc.
As we finished reflecting on Father Kern’s legacy, they emphasized the need to keep Father Kern’s memory alive. Vic stated “Father Kern believed in us and that a practical way we can continue his work is by donating to the Father Kern Foundation which in turn gives financial support to numerous community-based organizations”. They encourage people to come to the August 15th mass at Holy Trinity. They noted he was especially supportive of the Latino community and that it is important for us, many who came out of poverty and who celebrate our roots in Corktown, to give back to our communities.
For more information on the Msgr. Kern 40th Anniversary Mass, you can call Vic Venegas at (313) 682-1820
Msgr. Clement H. Kern 40th Anniversary Planning Committee
Honorable Annette J Berry
Msgr. Charles Kosanke
Carmen Bartolo Rodriguez