SPARTANBURG — Two years ago, Anita Geigley described Penny Clements as a very smart lady and a woman of faith who was well ahead of her time.
At that time, the 88-year-old Clements was about to be honored by the South Carolina Council of Catholic Women for 53 years of service to the organization. That salute marked the second time the council dedicated its annual convention to her.
Earlier this month, Geigley and other friends, fellow parishioners and family celebrated Mrs. Clements’ 90th birthday after a Mass at St. Paul the Apostle Church, followed by a party. Close to 200 people attended that celebration held at the American Legion.
Don Burton, a member of St. Paul who has known Mrs. Clements for nearly 40 years, said she has been a stable influence on the parish and the broader community.
“She’s a very dedicated woman,” Burton said during the birthday celebration. “She’s eternal.”
Mrs. Clements has devoted countless hours to the SCCCW as president of the Greenville Deanery, SCCCW Woman of the Year and president of the state council. She also found time over the years to serve as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion; take an active role in the St. Paul Women’s Club; deliver meals and work in the kitchen for Mobile Wheels; serve as president of the VFW Auxiliary and senior vice president of the American Legion Auxiliary; and plunge into party politics.
And she did all of that while raising eight children, who have all gone on to lead productive lives in the region.
Mrs. Clements was born and raised on a farm in Salem Township, Pa. She was one of 10 children.
She left Salem when she was 14 in order to attend high school — Salem didn’t have one at the time. After she graduated, Mrs. Clements headed for New York to visit one of her sisters.
“I got a job in New York City and moved into a place in Brooklyn,” she said.
When the country entered into World War II, she joined the Women’s Army Corps and was sent to Iowa, California and Louisiana, and overseas to New Guinea and the Philippines.
She used the G.I. Bill to complete her education at Pace University in New York, where she first met her future husband, Leonard. He worked as an accountant for Milliken textiles at the time, and it was that job that would steer the Clements south.
Clements was transferred to Clemson in 1952, where the couple joined St. Andrew parish. Mrs. Clements was raised in the Episcopal Church, but converted to Catholicism in 1938 while living in New York. She said she became interested in Catholicism through her sister, who was attending instruction at the time.
“I didn’t have anything else to do except wait around for her, so I sat in with her,” she said.
St. Andrew was a relatively new parish when the Clements arrived, having been established just 12 years earlier. But it was growing, fueled primarily by the influx of students from Clemson University. Mrs. Clements didn’t waste any time getting involved. She joined the local women’s club and in six months was its president.
Seven years later, Milliken transferred the Clements to a mill in Laurens County. The only Catholic Church in the area was St. Boniface in Joanna, which had been established in 1949. Only a handful of households were enrolled, a circumstance that was common for Catholics in the rural and predominantly Southern Baptist Upstate.
Clements was transferred again two years later, this time to McCormick, not far from the Georgia state line. The few Catholics living there drove to Abbeville or Greenwood every Sunday for Mass.
In the early 1960s, Bishop Francis F. Reh agreed to move the small chapel serving the Catholic population in Greenwood to McCormick. That building is still standing and the Good Shepherd Mission now has more than 120 households.
Mrs. Clements and one of her sons were invited a few years ago to return to the parish for the dedication of a new social hall.
“The bishop was there and during the ceremony he asked if there was anyone who was there when the chapel was moved from Greenwood,” she said. “My son and I were the only two that stood up.”
While living in McCormick the Clements also turned their shared interest in politics into helping grow the Republican Party. Mrs. Clements served as party treasurer and her husband was president.
“There weren’t many of us around at that time,” she said. “We didn’t even have a primary because there weren’t any Republican candidates. They were all Democrats.”
The Clements left McCormick in 1965. Milliken moved the family north to Spartanburg, where they joined St. Paul the Apostle church. In Spartanburg County, she served as a poll manager for dozens of elections.
Her husband died in 1974, but Mrs. Clements has never remarried.
“I was busy. I still had two children to raise. I had two in college and one still in high school,” she said. “I had a good marriage. I couldn’t have found another one like him.”
Mrs. Clements did stay busy. She has missed only one National Convention of Catholic Women since 1976 and that was because her twin sons were both married that same weekend.
She still lives in the red brick, two-story home in downtown Spartanburg that she and her husband purchased 42 years ago. Mrs. Clements continues to help at the church during the week and on weekends, though she says she’ll probably cut back to weekends only. She also still serves with the St. Paul Women’s Club and visits shut-ins regularly.
Father James Crowley, pastor at St. Paul, said Mrs. Clements has been, and continues to be, a pillar in the faith community.
“In the three years I have been here at St. Paul’s, she has been an inspiration to me,” Father Crowley said. “She has been an active member of the parish in so many ways. Over and over again she has shown her commitment to her family and her faith community. She’s a wonderful person.”
In addition to her eight children, Mrs. Clements has 26 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, all of whom have been a blessing to her.
“I’ve had a very good life,” she said. “God has been very good to me.”