“I know in my heart that this is where God wants me.”
That is how Deacon Donald Clavette sees his vocation as a permanent deacon in the
“This where I belong,” he says.
A resident of Madawaska, Deacon Clavette was ordained to the permanent diaconate in 2004, but his ministry has spanned a lifetime.
“He was always involved in the Church, always,” says Ann Marie, his wife.
“We were both involved in the Church quite a bit our whole lives,” Deacon Clavette adds.
For his service to the people of the St. John River Valley, Deacon Clavette was chosen as the winner of the 2019 Msgr. Charles Murphy Deacon of the Year Award. The award was presented by Bishop Robert Deeley and Deacon Peter Bernier, director of the diocese’s Office of the Diaconate, during the annual Deacon Assembly held at St. Joseph Church in Brewer.
Deacon Clavette calls the award humbling and an honor, but he also says that when he learned of it, a question quickly came to mind.
“I keep wondering why me and not some of the other deacons,” he says. “I mean, there are folks more deserving.”
Those who know Deacon Clavette, however, say it is well-deserved.
“I have come to know him to be a person of deep faith, a person who embraces a rich prayer life, and a person who always tries to put Jesus first at the center of his life,” says Deacon Bernier. “His diaconal ministry models ‘Christ the Servant,’ as he always strives to put others first, while putting Gospel values into practice.”
“I’m ecstatic, ecstatic that he won the well-deserved Deacon of the Year,” says Deacon Rodney Deschaine, who also serves the Cluster 2 parishes of Notre Dame du Mont Carmel in Madawaska, Our Lady of the Valley in Saint Agatha, and St. Peter Chanel in Van Buren. “I probably would not be here serving as a deacon if not for his spiritual direction and encouragement.”
There are many in these northern Maine communities whose lives Deacon Clavette has touched, whether though coaching, his 33 years as a teacher at Madawaska High School, or his Church service
“There is a feeling of trust. They have confidence in him. No matter what happens, he is there. He is someone who is steady,” says Ann Marie.
Deacon Clavette has lived most of his life in Madawaska, growing up in a faith-filled home.
“There was no question of not going to church for us. And every night after supper, we would all kneel and say the Rosary,” he recalls.
He was an altar server through high school and pondered the possibility of the priesthood. It was one of the reasons he decided to attend a Catholic college, choosing St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
“I went there but found out that my vocation wasn’t the priesthood. The desire wasn’t strong enough,” he says.
It was the Vietnam War era, and after college, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Fortunately, his ability to speak French and Spanish, along with English, resulted in a stateside assignment.
He returned to Madawaska in 1970 after being offered a job at the high school.
“I was teaching French, English, Spanish, history. I was teaching a little bit of everything,” he says.
Not long after, he met Ann Marie, who was working as a nurse at a hospital in Edmundston, New Brunswick.
“I remember telling somebody that if by next Christmas I haven’t found anybody, I think I’m going to seminary. There was still that little tug. And we met the 19th of December. So, God didn’t want to go to seminary.”
“It was a teachers’ Christmas party. I was invited with others, but he was there,” recalls Ann Marie. “We sat there all night, talking. I think we danced one dance. We talked, and talked, and talked.”
Someone of deep faith herself, Ann Marie says she noticed something different about him from the first.
“He was different from other guys I dated, different in that faith aspect. When he spoke, it was like a real thing. God, Jesus, was real to him,” she says. “I asked him one time when we were going out, ‘So, am I first in your life?’ And Don said, ‘No, God is.’”
“God is always first in my life. It doesn’t take away from my love her, because I love her even more because of that,” he says. “When you put God first, you can love your wife, your children, and the people around you in a much better way.”
Ann Marie admits it was something she struggled with a bit at first.
“You can’t compete with God,” she says. “That’s tough.”
She says, however, attending a marriage encounter brought the pieces together, including helping her discover the power of the prayer of a married couple.
“God is the third person in our marriage. We pray together at night. We have our own individual prayer times in the morning,” says Ann Marie. “God is part of everything we do.”
“I could never do what I’m doing without prayer,” Deacon Clavette says. “I get up every morning. I spend almost an hour in prayer. I do my breviary. I do all types of prayers. I do a Rosary ever day, the Divine Mercy Chaplet every day, and my breviary again at night.”
Deacon Clavette also goes to daily Mass. On days when there isn’t a Mass in Madawaska, he travels across the border to attend Mass with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
“I love to go there. There is an ambiance there. They have exposition all day,” he says. “Mass is very important to me. The Eucharist is very important. Reconciliation is important.”
While Deacon Clavette says he came to realize the priesthood wasn’t his call, when he learned of the permanent diaconate, he felt differently.
“When they opened the diaconate up in this area, I said that I really feel that is a calling. But I told Ann Marie that if I feel pressure and feel that I just can’t do this anymore, then I know it’s from me and not from God,” he says.
“Both of us work. Our kids were involved in sports, drama, band, basketball, soccer,” says Ann Marie. “I thought, ‘How is he ever going to get this done?’ But Don was very, very disciplined about it.”
Although it meant 220-mile trips to Brewer, studying, and writing papers, all while working and raising children, he says there was only once when he felt he couldn’t do it.
“I told Ann Marie, ‘I am so tired. I can’t go this week,’ and it was canceled because of a snowstorm,” he says.
Two years before ordination, he was given a new responsibility. Bishop Joseph Gerry, OSB, asked him to take over as director of the Christian Life Center in Frenchville, which offers retreats and other programs. He retired from teaching and took on the task, only to discover how daunting it would be. He says the center had a mere $100 in its checking account, with a $50,000 mortgage to pay off.
“I went into the chapel, and I said, ‘Lord, I’m not a finance person. I don’t like raising money, so I’m going to put that in your hands. I’ll do your work, but you take care of the money,’” he recalls.
By the end of the year, through offering retreats nearly every weekend, $20,000 was raised. Later, a giant yard sale was added, further increasing revenue.
Among the programs Deacon Clavette brought to the Christian Life Center were ACTS retreats, intended to strengthen engagement in parish life. ACTS is an acronym for adoration, community, theology, and service.
Deacon Clavette served as director of the Christian Life Center for 12 years before leaving so he would have more time to assist at the parishes.
Both he and Ann Marie have both long been models of parish service. More than 20 years ago, they worked with a priest to establish a parish cell system, a small-group approach to evangelization. Three groups still meet today, including a men’s group led by Deacon Clavette.
“You start with a sharing. You have a teaching. Then, you share on the teaching, and there are questions,” Deacon Clavette explains. “I’m the one who prepares all the cell teachings.”
Seeing a need to reach young people in a similar manner, the couple wrote a program geared toward youth.
They are also both involved in faith formation, with Deacon Clavette assisting adults wishing to enter the Church or receive the sacrament of confirmation and Ann Marie serving as parish catechetical leader.
“Not because she’s my wife, but she is exceptional,” Deacon Clavette says.
The couple also leads marriage preparation, and Deacon Clavette does baptismal preparation, as well as baptizing children and blessing marriages. He also visits and holds Communion services at area nursing homes, started a Christmas basket program, and is a chaplain for the Knights of Columbus.
“I always give them a little talk. I try to encourage them faith-wise,” he says.
At age 75, Deacon Clavette says he has no plans to retire from active ministry.
“What is the sense of staying home when I can do these things? I enjoy what I’m doing,” he says. “I was ordained a deacon, and for me, I’m a deacon for life.”