Rev. George Clements, a longtime civil rights advocate from Chicago’s South Side who was also known as the first Catholic priest to adopt a child, and later, three more, died Monday at a hospital in Northwest Indiana. He was 87.
Clements suffered a massive stroke Oct. 12 and more recently suffered a heart attack which contributed to his death, his son, Joey, 52, the first of the famed pastor’s four adopted sons, confirmed Monday.
Three of Clements’ sons — Joey, Friday and Saint — held a news conference Monday outside their father’s longtime church, Holy Angels in Bronzeville, to share memories (a fourth brother, Stewart, was enroute to Chicago from Los Angeles).
“This morning our dad decided that he needed to go home, that his work here on earth was done,” Friday, 51, said.
The brothers grew up in the nearby rectory and spoke of their dad’s open-door policy for anyone who needed a hand.
“The rectory was always open,” Friday said. “If the doorbell rang, it had to be opened. And guess what, when the staff was gone, it was our responsibility.”
He recalled greeting desperate people of all sorts, from homeless men to women who’d just left their spouse.
“We had to open that door and our father would come downstairs and try to calm the situation,” he said.
Despite being pulled in all directions, Clements still found time to be a great dad — from tossing them the car keys to guiding them through school, the brothers said.
“We never lacked for anything in life,” said Friday, an investigator with the Cook County Public Defender’s office. “I graduated from college without having a student loan.”
He always shared what he had — a spirit that dictated his last wishes, Joey said.
“As per our father’s wishes, there will not be an official funeral service — our father cared about everyone else more than himself, so he decided that instead of interment, he wanted to give his body to science,” he said.
Active in the civil rights movement, Clements marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in Chicago, Alabama and Mississippi and was arrested.
“George Clements is someone who’s an icon in this city. He fought for justice, he fought for equality, he fought against racism” fellow South Side priest Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church.
“He opened his doors to everybody, he’s the one who hid Bobby Rush when he was a Black Panther and police were searching for him,” Pfleger said, recalling how U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, then a Black Panther, sought refuge at Clements’ church while on the run following a police raid on the West Side that left Black Panther leader Fred Hampton dead in 1969.
Clements “was one of the first voices advocating for civil rights for African Americans within the Catholic Church,” Pfleger said.
“George Clements made black Catholics proud to be black Catholics. He was a pioneering voice. When black Catholics felt excluded, forgotten, ignored in the Catholic church, George Clements fought to make sure they had a place at the table,” Pfleger said.
“We got into a lot of trouble together, went to jail a number of times together,” Pfleger said of their fight to advance social justice.
In August, Clements was accused of sexually abusing a minor in 1974 as pastor of Holy Angels Parish in Bronzeville.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago asked Clements “to step aside from ministry” pending the outcome of an investigation into the allegation.
Clements told the Chicago Sun-Times the allegation was “totally unfounded.”
A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services told the Sun-Times earlier this month that the allegation had been classified “unfounded” after an investigation found “there was nothing” to support it.
A spokesperson for the archdiocese said the investigation regarding Clements “is still ongoing.”
Clements’ sons, also citing the ongoing investigation, declined to share details of the case but expressed confidence their father’s name will be totally cleared.
“The truth will eventually come out, and I do believe my father will be exonerated,” Friday said.
In 1945, Clements became the archdiocese’s first African American graduate of Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary. He was ordained as a priest in 1957 and went on to become the first black pastor at Holy Angels in 1969.
Clements spearheaded the “One Church-One Child” program in 1980, which aimed to spur Catholic churches to find adoptive parents for orphaned black children.
He decided to put into practice what he preached.
In 1980, Clements became the first Catholic priest to adopt a child. He would adopt three more. His career inspired a made-for-TV movie in 1987, “The Father Clements Story,” starring Louis Gossett Jr.
Clements started a similar program for people living with drug addiction in 1994 and another for incarcerated people and their families in 1999.
“The priesthood is a vocation. But then along the way, one gets avocations, and mine were three: homelessness, addicts and prisoners,” Clements told the Sun-Times in 2017.
Clements is one of six children born to Samuel and Aldonia Clements. His father worked at the stockyards and his mother was a homemaker.
After adopting Joey from Uhlich Children’s Home in 1981, he adopted his second son, Friday, a year later from an orphanage in Nigeria.
Two more sons followed: Stewart, adopted after they met on an Oprah Winfrey show about adoptions; and Saint Anthony, in 1985, after the principal of Phillips High School called Rev. Clements seeking help for a troubled, neglected teen.
“I’m really, really proud of what they’ve accomplished,” Clements said of his sons in 2017. “They haven’t become world leaders, but they haven’t been to jail, or on drugs, or anything like that. God is good.”
Pfleger said St. Sabina will hold a memorial service for Clements on January 26.
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.