This year marks the 40th anniversary of the legendary Msgr Clement Kern’s passing in 1983. I was reminded of this when I ran into Mary Turner recently at a community awards luncheon organized by State Senator Stephanie Chang’s office. Ms. Turner is a veteran community activist formerly with LA SED (Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development) and namesake to the Mary Turner Center for Advocacy. The center was originally established by current Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib when she was a state representative in collaboration with former City Councilwoman Raquel Castenada Lopez. Senator Chang continues to support the center’s operations.
Mary Turner made sure I always knew about annual events commemorating Msgr Clemente Kern’s legacy. As an activist pastor for Corktown’s Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church he served as a model for her own work and inspiration. This time she let me know that Tuesday August 15th the community will hold the 40th anniversary celebration and to make sure I would let others know. That I will definitely do!
For those not familiar with his legacy you may ask “Who was Msgr Kern?” In short he was a charismatic priest, who was fluent in Spanish and who many in the Latino community at that time considered a revered and committed leader. In this short article I cannot even begin to do justice to his work nor adequately show his influence on city politics and history. But here goes.
This past year I ran across a biography of his life which I was previously unaware of. I could not resist ordering the 1989 book, Father Clem Kern: Conscience of Detroit by Genevieve M. Casey and reading it. Though I was aware of some of the details which poured out of its pages I truly was awestruck by most of its contents. Interestingly enough while conducting research on the history of Puerto Rican migrant workers who arrived in the Saginaw Michigan area in the 1950s, many who would later settle in Detroit, I ran across another book published in 2014 titled We Are Left Without a Father Here by Eileen Suarez Findlay. Msgr Kern and Most Holy Trinity Parish figured prominently there too!
My celebration of Msgr Kern’s legacy is motivated not only by this sense of community pride but also because of personal experiences with him. I grew up in Corktown after being brought as an infant from my native island of Puerto Rico. In my early childhood our family lived on LaBrosse literally one block away from Most Holy Trinity Elementary and two blocks away from the church on 6th and Porter. I would attend Holy Trinity from Kindergarten to the 8th grade. While at Most Holy Trinity I was lucky enough to be one of his alter boys. Even at that young age I knew I was in the presence of someone who was a great and humble servant of the people. On many occasions I saw him console parishioners during their trials and tribulations, promote leadership among our community leaders, sponsor community enrichment events and self-improvement activities, and help community members establish self-help and fraternal organizations like the Puerto Rican Club during the mid 50’s of which two of my uncles served as Presidents.
Parish and school staff made sure students were served healthy and nutritious lunches and had access to cultural enrichment activities. We knew we were important and had value. That spirit spilled over to teachers and staff, many of whom would become activists in the Civil Rights and anti-war movement. I will never forget decades later my elementary school principal sent me a warm and long congratulatory note upon my hiring as the Director of Multicultural Affairs at Madonna University in 1998. I was truly surprised and emotionally moved to know she remembered me so many years later. That progressive and activist spirit was definitely influenced by Msgr Kern’s consistent leadership. In retrospect I know this education and community environment laid a strong foundation for my own personal development.
As I sifted through and organized my archives a few months back I chanced upon a 1983 edition of El Barrio, published by Casa de Unidad, acknowledging his recent passing. There I found an article written by Eva Aguirre Cooper. In such a loving way she briefly covered his history and shared the impact he had on her family. Ms. Aguirre would go to become an award winning TV newscaster and anchor for Grand Rapids Michigan’s WOOD Channel TV8 and later would assume the position of Vice President of Community Partnership for the national network Univision based out of Miami. It must be also noted that Eva’s mother, Lupe Aguirre, was a key staff person and organizer for Casa de Unidad during the 80’s.
In Eva Aquirre’s story she noted how in addition to paying attention to parishioners’ spiritual needs Msgr Kern made sure their practical needs were also met. He opened up soup kitchens, thrift stores, founded the Cabrini Health center, legal clinics and helped the homeless secure shelter. He would also visit prisoners to console, support and advocate for them.
He was known as a labor priest and a strong union supporter building personal and professional friendships with key leaders. The United Farmworkers and Ohio based Farmworkers Labor Organizing Committee enjoyed his support. Later on as I gained a deeper appreciation of Detroit’s activist history I became aware of the fact that Most Holy Trinity Church and Corktown was at the center of the Catholic Worker movement. Msgr Kern’s influence was evident in their work.
As Eva Aguirre’s article noted Msgr Kern would call out to Latinos/Hispanics to “Get Organized’ and would support a number of agencies founded to do just that. All this while hobnobbing with city and state movers and shakers. I remember singing and performing as a third grader for the “Sharing of the Green” fundraising events during St. Patrick Day masses and celebrations. It amazed me to see Detroit’s Mayor Cavanaugh, Governor Romney and union officials regularly showed up and “hung out” not only during these special festivities but throughout the year.
As I mention above these recollections cannot do justice in describing Msgr. Kern’s legacy. I definitely will be there August 15th at the 40th anniversary celebration of his passing. I hope in my small way I am paying homage to him and the legacy he left us.