Father Earl Simonson, retired pastor of St. Clement church and a former auto worker who became a Catholic priest in mid-career, died June 11 at the Legacy of St. Anthony, where he had lived since the spring of 2017. He was 89. His death came a few weeks after the 50th anniversary of his ordination.
Simonson was born in Decorah, Iowa, in 1930 and grew up on the East Side of St. Paul. His family was not religious, but he investigated various faiths before being baptized Catholic at age 16. He worshipped at St. John’s church in St. Paul, and his zeal for Catholicism attracted the attention of a parishioner, who later paid for Simonson’s tuition to St. Thomas College and St. Paul Seminary. Simonson was ordained a priest in 1969, at age 39. Before college, he had worked at the St. Paul Ford plant for a dozen years.
His first assignment was to St. Charles Borromeo, and after four stints at other parishes in the Twin Cities, Simonson became the pastor of St. Clement, a job he held for more than 40 years. In 2012, St. Clement merged with nearby St. Anthony of Padua, St. Hedwig and Holy Cross. Simonson retired from the active ministry in 2017. Father Simonson thought of himself as a curmudgeon, a judgment not shared by his parishioners, and was known for his independent streak, which extended into his love of cooking big meals for guests and sewing his own vestments. Fellow priests called him “Earl the Pearl.”
Lorie Archambault, Simonson’s secretary for more than 30 years, described how she came to know him in 1981. “We had just returned from Germany, where my husband was stationed in the military. We were looking for a school for our kids, and someone suggested we contact Father Simonson at St. Clement. He got them into Northeast Regional Catholic School by waiving a year-in-the-parish requirement. In 1989, his secretary retired, and I needed a job to help pay tuition for the four children. He hired me, and I remained his full-time secretary for 24 years, and helped out part-time for several years longer.” About his independence, she added, “That’s a good description. The last few years, after the parish mergers, were difficult for him. But I considered him a friend as well as a priest. He loved baptizing newborn babies – I think he was happiest doing that.”
Former County Commissioner Mark Stenglein recalled being an altar server at Simonson’s first mass at St. Charles. Stenglein likened Father Simonson to Bishop Myriel, the priest in Les Miserables who takes in Jean Valjean, and about whom Hugo wrote, “The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.”
Father Spencer Howe, who came to Holy Cross in 2017 as parochial administrator, at the time called Simonson “A giant in the neighborhood … [with] a kind of a rugged independence and idiosyncrasies. But God uses those idiosyncrasies and personality traits both to endear people and [bring] the levity we need not to take ourselves too seriously.” In a June 18 email, Howe said, “He was a NE institution and universally known (and appreciated) by business owners, restauranteurs, funeral directors, neighbors, as well as the urban poor. He spent his priesthood generously serving those who came to him. His entire being was dedicated to priestly service.”
A vigil was held at St. Clement Church on Thursday, June 20. St. Paul Archdiocese Archbishop Bernard Hebda presided at the funeral mass at St. Charles Borromeo, which was chosen because a large crowd was expected, it was Simonson’s first church assignment and it was where he attended and celebrated Saturday mass during his last two years.
Hebda was accompanied by the pastors of Holy Cross, St. John the Baptist, St. Maron’s, St. Charles, and more than a dozen other parishes. Looking at those gathered, Hebda said, “Father Simonson asked for a big church, and you can see why: these folks would never have fit in St. Clement. I’m surprised he didn’t book the cathedral.”
Hebda added, “He was indeed a joyful priest, but it was Father’s great sense of humility that served him so well in his ministry; he always understood that he was God’s humble servant. We were blessed by the power of his witness; and we can only hope that we might respond with such humility ourselves.”
Below: Father Earl Simonson