Pioneering Rev. Clements paved the way for Cardinal Wilton Gregory

Clements led Black Catholics out of the shadows of a Church that had underappreciated and unrecognized them.

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Washington D.C. Archbishop Wilton Gregory greets churchgoers in 2019 at St. Mathews Cathedral after the annual Red Mass in Washington.

Jose Luis Magana/AP

Pope Francis will soon install Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., to the College of Cardinals. Roman Catholics — and, especially, Blacks like me — should celebrate this long-overdue arrival of the nation’s first African American cardinal.

Gregory was born, raised and ordained in Chicago. He served as associate pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview and taught at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein. He became an auxiliary bishop in 1983 and was later ordained the bishop of downstate Belleville.

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About 250 of about 37,000 Catholic priests in the United States are African American, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Only two Catholic dioceses are led by African American bishops.

As we celebrate, we must also remember. Remember there could be no Cardinal Wilton Gregory without the Rev. George Clements.

Clements, the iconic, pioneering cleric, was once the most famous Black priest in America. Last November, he died after a heart attack and stroke. He was 87.

Like Gregory, Clements hailed from Chicago’s South Side. In 1945, he was the first African American to graduate from Quigley Academy Seminary.

From 1969 to 1991, Clements built a proud Black congregation at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Bronzeville. Under Clements’ tutelage, Holy Angels Catholic school grew to become the largest Black Catholic school in the nation.

He led Black Catholics out of the shadows of a Church that had underappreciated and unrecognized them. Father Clements was our champion.

He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., worked with the Black Panthers in community service, and protested drugs and crime on the streets of Chicago.

His national “One Church One Child” program helped Black families adopt the hundreds of thousands of Black children who were languishing in the child welfare system. And he walked his talk, adopting four sons of his own, serving as a model for Black fatherhood.

“George would be ecstatic” over Gregory’s elevation to Cardinal, the Rev. Michael Pfleger says. The pastor of St. Sabina Church in Auburn-Gresham worked, marched and was arrested with Clements for decades.

Clements “loved being a priest,” Pfleger recalled. “George not only paved the way for African Americans to consider the priesthood but always was trying to recruit.”

And “a number of the African American priests we have are priests today because of the trailblazing George did.”

Clements paved that way while fighting the bigotry of those who resented his activism. “He experienced racism, you know, strong … in the diocese, in the early days, he saw it. And particularly because he was very vocal about the things he believed in.”

Last year, Clements was accused of sexually abusing a minor in 1974 while he was pastor of Holy Angels.

In August, after an 11-month investigation, the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Independent Review Board determined that, “in light of the information presented, there is not reasonable cause to believe that Fr. Clements sexually abused” the accuser when he was a minor.

By then, Clements was dead.

After a lifetime of fighting hate, he died under that “horrific” cloud, Pfleger said. He recalled visiting his dying friend at the hospital.

The abuse charge would come up, “and he’d just cry.”

“And, you know, he was just so hurt that this is how, this is how people would remember him. And I kept trying to tell him, ‘No, no. That they’re gonna remember your adoption. They’re gonna remember your building up one of the strongest churches in the country. They’re gonna remember your activism and your voice for the Black community in general.’”


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