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Clement Boesflug: Catholic Priest and JACL Chaplain

Among the Maryknoll Catholic clergy who worked with Japanese Americans, many individuals, including Fathers Hugh Lavery and Leopold Tibesar, served as spiritual teachers and advocates on behalf of Japanese communities. However, few interacted with their parishioners or participated in community politics as much as Father Clement Boesflug. Known commonly as “Father Clement” – in part because of the difficulties people had pronouncing his last name – Clement Boesflug served as a Maryknoll priest across the West Coast and in Japan, and ultimately earned recognition from the JACL as an honorary chaplain for his wartime advocacy and postwar work with the Los Angeles JACL.

Father Clement Boesflug and Mr. Tajita at Toyo Miyatake Studio, Los Angeles, California, August 25, 1955. (Japanese American National Museum. Photograph by Toyo Miyatake Studio, Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family. 96.267.291)

Clement Peter Boesflug (sometimes written as Boespflug) was born on January 8, 1907 in Bismarck, North Dakota. His parents, Mathias and Philomena Neubauer Boesflug, were ethnic Germans who fled from Russia in 1898 after facing persecution. They settled in the United States, where his father found employment as a laborer and car inspector for the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad. Clement Boesflug spent his youth attending St. Mary’s Catholic School in Bismarck, and his experience there helped to shape his desire for a career as a priest.

After graduating in 1925, the young Boesflug applied to study at the Maryknoll’s Vernard Preparty Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. However, he was sent instead to the Maryknoll’s new Preparatory Seminary at Mountain View, California, where he joined the first class of students on September 6, 1926. In June 1928, Boesflug graduated from Maryknoll’s Preparatory Seminary and began training for the priesthood at Maryknoll’s Seminary in Ossining, New York. 

After six years of study at Maryknoll, Boesflug was ordained on June 17, 1934 at the Maryknoll Seminary at Ossining, New York. He was quickly called for missionary work in Asia. Just five weeks after ordination, on July 21, 1934, Boesflug appeared on Bismarck’s radio station KFYR to discuss his work in Japan. Soon after, Boesflug travelled to Kyoto, Japan, where he began Japanese language training. In December 1934, The Catholic Transcript shared a letter written by Boesflug sharing his initial impressions of life in Japan. He stated warmly:

“I think I shall like Japan and the Japanese for the rest of my life. Their intense love for children appeals so much. No wonder Japan has often been called ‘The Children’s Paradise,’ for the little ones here are greatly loved by all…All of us are anxious to learn Japanese as quickly and as perfectly as we can.”

Boesflug spent four years in Japan, then returned to the United States in November 1938. After briefly working at Seattle’s Maryknoll parish, Boesflug was assigned to Los Angeles, where he dedicated himself to working with the Japanese American community. Together with Father Hugh Lavery, Father Clement taught at the Maryknoll school. Already praised in the pages of the Taihoku Nippo in Seattle and Rafu Shimpo in Los Angeles for his talent as a violinist, Father Clement established a music program at Maryknoll school in January 1940, directing a school band, orchestra, and glee club.

As with his fellow priests, Father Clement worked furiously to support the Japanese American community in the weeks surrounding the signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Father Clement accompanied Father Lavery to Fort Missoula Internment Camp to testify on behalf of Issei men arrested by the FBI. Even as Father Lavery returned to Los Angeles to report on the conditions of the camp to the Japanese American press, Father Clement remained at Fort Missoula to comfort the men at the camp. He was one of the few individuals permitted to speak Japanese with the internees.

As the forced removal uprooted West Coast Japanese Americans, Father Clement remained in contact with the Los Angeles community as they went to camp. At the Santa Anita detention center, Father Clement and Father Lavery organized movie screenings, with Father Clement serving as the projectionist. On Memorial Day 1942, Father Clement held a service for the community that was captured on film by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

In September 1942, Maryknoll assigned Father Clement to work at the Poston Concentration Camp in Arizona, and he assumed the position of chaplain on September 15. At Poston II, Father Clement lived next to National JACL president Saburo Kido in Block 15. In addition to his religious services, Father Clement helped arrange various leisure activities for those confined. He helped purchase equipment for the Poston recreation department, and continued to screen films at Poston. On March 23, 1944, Father Clement invited Bishop Daniel Gercke, the Bishop of Tuscon, to hold Sunday mass and convene a ceremony where 16 inmates were confirmed.

Like Father Lavery, Father Clement frequently travelled to other camps to provide services to Japanese American Catholics who lacked a priest. Father Clement traveled bi-monthly to Gila River to hold mass, and screened films there for the confined. A number of community analysts, such as anthropologist Robert Spencer, described Father Clement as an impressive individual who held mass in Latin and Japanese, and as “broadminded” and “caring for the immediate needs” of the community by providing recreation materials.

In January 1945, Father Clement took up an assignment at Minidoka Concentration Camp, replacing Father Tibesar after his departure to Chicago (for more information, see my previous article). Father Clement remained at Minidoka until July 1945, just before the camp’s closure. During his time at Minidoka, Father Clement circulated a newsletter tracking the activities of former parishioners who left camp, along with updates on the work of various priests.

Following the end of World War II and the closure of the Minidoka Concentration Camp, Father Clement returned to Los Angeles, where he helped resettlers adjust to life in Los Angeles. Soon after, however, on September 1, 1947, Father Clement left for Japan, where he was assigned work with the Catholic parish in Kyoto, and then a new parish at Sakamoto. In homage to his efforts on behalf of Japanese Americans, the Rafu Shimpo published a celebration of Father Clement just before his departure. While at Kyoto, Father Clement was joined by a number of Maryknoll clergy from the camps, such as Manzanar’s Father Leo Steinbach and Sister Mary Susanna Hayashi.

He also served as a channel for relief efforts of Nikkei communities. Accompanying Father Clement to Japan was five tons of relief supplies bound for struggling Japanese families that had been donated by Los Angeles Japanese American families at a drive organized by Catholic lay leader (and future Pacific Citizen editor) Harry Honda - whose wedding had been officiated by Father Clement and with whom he often collaborated with on the Pacific Citizen’s Holiday Issue. In 1948, he received another shipment of supplies organized by the Windsor Girls Club, a Nisei social group, that was sent for orphans under his care.

After returning to the United States in 1951, Father Clement continued to preach at Maryknoll’s Los Angeles parish. Starting in 1956, he started a weekly Sunday morning broadcast to the community over radio station KBLA, the only Japanese-language Catholic radio program in the United States. So fully was Father Clement accepted as part of the Los Angeles Japanese community that when his father Mathias died in 1967, the Rafu Shimpo published an obituary.

A unique characteristic of Father Clement's career was his association with the Japanese American Citizens League. In 1954, he became a member of the Los Angeles chapter, and later their first chaplain. He also served as an unofficial chaplain for the National JACL, often happy to give an invocation or benediction at the National JACL conventions. In 1963, the Los Angeles chapter elected Father Clement as their president. While president, Father Clement succeeded in convincing Los Angeles Dodgers president Walter O’Malley to address a JACL Christmas sushi luncheon.

Installation of JACL officers at 7th annual Los Angeles Coordinating Council social at Old Dixie, Los Angeles, California, January 31, 1959. (Japanese American National Museum. Photograph by Toyo Miyatake Studio, Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family. 96.267.665)

A year later, the JACL awarded Father Clement with its “JACLer of the Biennium” award at the 1964 Detroit convention - the only non-Japanese American ever to receive the award – in recognition of his support of the community during the war and activism on behalf of the JACL. He likewise served as chaplain for the Japanese American Optimist Club, a group of which he remained a member for eight years.

In 1967, Father Clement left Los Angeles to accept a position at the Maryknoll Seminary at Venard, Pennsylvania. In commemoration of his departure, JACL National President Jerry Enomoto honored Father Clement as an “honorary buddhahead.” After his departure, he remained in close touch with his former parishioners. From 1970 to 1974, he worked with the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Development House, and moved around to different parishes across the U.S. on behalf of Maryknoll.

In 1984, Father Clement formally retired from work as a Maryknoll priest, and took up residence at the Mountain View Seminary where he had originally begun his career. On October 18, 1995, Father Clement passed away at the Maryknoll’s Saint Teresa’s Residence in Ossining, New York, at 88 years old. The Rafu Shimpo eulogized his death, noting his long career of activism and presence among the Los Angeles Japanese American community.

Years later, Father Clement continued to be remembered in the columns of Harry Honda for the Rafu Shimpo. Although several Maryknoll priests supported the Japanese American community through the hardships of the incarceration, Father Clement achieved a unique insider status, symbolized by his close work with the JACL.


© 2021 Jonathan van Harmelen

Catholic Clement Boesflug Concentration camps JACL Japan Los Angeles Maryknoll world war II