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George Clements: One-time celebrity priest looks back at 60 years

Father George Clements, 85, at his Evergreen Park home on Friday, April 21, 2017. Clements, who became the first black pastor of Holy Angels Catholic Church in 1969, celebrates his 60th anniversary in the priesthood on May 3, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Father George Harold Clements, born Jan. 26, 1932, just celebrated his 85th birthday.

On May 3, he’ll celebrate the 60th anniversary of his ordination as an Archdiocese of Chicago priest — that day in 1957 that sent him off on a career unique for any man of the cloth, much less Catholic.

But Father Clements, who gained iconic status during the 22 years shepherding South Side Holy Angels Parish in the 1970s and 80s — and who in 1980 became the first Catholic priest to adopt a child — was never content with doing what was expected.

Breaking the rules, for the sake of righteousness, just came naturally.

“The priesthood is a vocation. But then along the way, one gets avocations, and mine were three: homelessness, addicts and prisoners,” Clements, now living in south suburban Evergreen Park, said in an exclusive interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, as he reflected on those 60 years.

It’s a career in which he rose to national prominence through a 1987 made for TV movie, “The Father Clements Story,” starring Louis Gossett Jr. as Clements; Malcolm-Jamal Warner as his first adopted son — he later adopted three more; and the late Carroll O’Connor as the imperious Cardinal John Cody.

On Good Friday this year, Clements, who in 1981 at Holy Angels conceptualized what was to become the internationally renowned One Church, One Child program, was spotted among the throngs joining Cardinal Blase Cupich in a Way of the Cross march in the crime-plagued Englewood neighborhood.

“Wow, is that Father Clements?” “Where’s he been?” “Didn’t know he was still alive.” “Wasn’t he last on the East Coast somewhere?” Those type of comments trailed the once highly visible priest during a rare public appearance in the city where he found his calling, before leaving in 1991 to follow it.

“I’m really proud of the fact I decided to do that march against violence. I just wanted to show up, let them know I support their efforts,” said Clements, whose legs don’t carry him around these days as well as he’d like them to.

“But when I got there, I saw all those hundreds of people lined up behind the cross, and the cardinal himself there, and was moved to start marching. I felt it would be difficult for me to march two blocks, let alone 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., but I shocked myself. I marched the whole time,” he said. “People were looking at me, and saying, ‘Father, do you need help?’ I said, ‘No.’ And it was really an effort, so I’m very proud because I didn’t think I’d have the stamina to do something like that.”

Father George Clements, 85, at his Evergreen Park home on Friday, April 21, 2017. Clements, the first Catholic priest to adopt a child and first African-American to graduate from the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary, celebrates his 60th anniversary in the priesthood on May 3, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Clements, who in 1945 became the archdiocese’s first African-American graduate of Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary, is one of six children born to Samuel and Aldonia Clements. His father worked at the stockyards; his mother, a housewife. He grew up near 51st and King Drive, in the area now known as Bronzeville, home to Holy Angels, where Clements became the parish’s first black pastor in 1969.

It was at Corpus Christi Elementary School that the seed of vocation was planted by a Franciscan nun.

“I had been watching the priests, and was very impressed by how devoted they were to our community, and a seventh-grade nun, Sister Felician, had been promoting to me the idea of going into the seminary,” he said. “When I got into eighth grade, she was no longer pushing me. I later found out she learned the Franciscans did not accept blacks in their seminary, and didn’t know how to tell me.”

After graduation, off he’d go to Quigley. And the day he hopped the L for the downtown institution where he was to break racial barriers, he met a white 13-year-old headed to the same place, Dan Mallette, and they would become friends for life. He and “Father Dan,” a similarly unconventional pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland Church for 35 years, followed parallel paths much of their lives.

Both were very active in the civil rights movement, marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago, Alabama, Mississippi, and both were jailed during that ’60s struggle. Also, both tended to make the news for going against archdiocese edicts. Besties, they were, right up until Mallette, who survived a brutal beating from burglars at his rectory in 2011, passed away last month at 85.

“We had been together since age 13,” Clements said. “I don’t think Dan even knew that he was white, he was so involved in the black community all his life, and involved in everything I’ve been involved in.”

The Rev. David Jones of St. Benedict the African Parish is now his closest friend, hence his braving the Good Friday march sponsored by Jones’ church.

After Quigley, Clements earned his bachelor’s degree in sacred theology and master’s degree in philosophy at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, and he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest by Cardinal Samuel Stritch.

He would be assigned to archdiocese churches that had become predominantly black in the wake of ’60s and ’70s white flight; St. Ambrose Parish in Bronzeville for five years, then St. Dorothy in Chatham, around 1962, to work with its pastor, the Rev. Gerald Scanlan, a white activist priest responsible for immersing Clements in the civil rights movement.

“When King led the ’63 March on Washington, Scanlan did something no other church would do at that time: chartered a railroad car to take the men of St. Dorothy to D.C.,” Clements said. “We had this big banner: ‘St. Dorothy Marches for Freedom.’ And whenever King had anything going on — I marched with King in Jackson, Montgomery, Selma — Scanlan would get us involved. He was very much ahead of his time.”

So much so that after a few years of training Clements, Scanlan stood up in the pulpit and announced he was going to resign his position so that Clements could lead St. Dorothy. When word got out, Cardinal Cody was incensed. It was to be the first salvo in Clements’ yearslong feuding with Cody.

“All hell broke loose,” recalled Clements. “Cody called him in and said he’d gladly accept his resignation, but he was not about to make Clements pastor of St. Dorothy. Scanlan came back to the pulpit and told them the cardinal was about to send another white priest to pastor this black church when it had a perfectly capable black priest who should be pastor, and asked if they’d stand for it. They said absolutely not.”

It was a first for the archdiocese, if not nationally. A black congregation was going up against church hierarchy. It made headlines. Rather than give in, Cody took a political move. He appointed the archdiocese’ first black priest at the time, the Rev. Rollins Lambert, to take over St. Dorothy.

“Lambert held a press conference, saying he didn’t want to take the assignment because he would appear an ‘Uncle Tom.’ He said he believed I should be pastor, and unless Cody made me pastor of some church, he was going to resign from St. Dorothy. Cody made me pastor of Holy Angels in 1969,” Clements said.

“He called me in and told me it was only due to pressure, that Holy Angels was a very poor parish in the heart of the ghetto, was going down in attendance, and he fully expected me to fail.”

Clements was excited. Holy Angels was his old neighborhood. He knew the area. He knew the people.

He quickly set out to prove Cody wrong, concentrating on building up the elementary school with the help of a principal recruited from Louisiana. Clements and the Rev. Paul Smith — the first African-American diocesan priest ordained in Baltimore — would make Holy Angels the largest black Catholic school in the nation, with over 1,300 students.

Clements sadly recalls how Smith was murdered in his home by an intruder in 1996, after being left partially paralyzed in a car accident two years before.

By 1980, Holy Angels was flourishing. Its pastor was often in headlines for his no-nonsense leadership of the parish, and for taking on social ills. He suspended 200 students after their parents reneged on promises to attend Mass, for example, and led protest marches against drug paraphernalia shops that led to his arrest.

That was the year he got a visit from Gregory Coler, then head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, seeking help raising awareness about exploding numbers of African-American children languishing in foster care, awaiting adoption. Buying in, Clements scheduled a church meeting to urge his congregation to consider adoption. No one showed up. Angry, Clements scolded them from the pulpit.

“I told them that if they didn’t want to adopt, I would do it myself. The media heard about it, came to me and said, ‘Are you really going to adopt?’ I was cornered, nothing I could do. I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Priest plans to adopt,’ the headlines read,” Clements recalled.

“Cody called me. He said I’d done a lot of idiotic things in my priesthood, but nothing as crazy as this. He said, ‘Priests do not adopt. They will not adopt. And you’re not going to adopt.’ I said, ‘OK. I won’t adopt.’ He said, ‘That’s right!’ And he slammed the phone down,” Clements said.

“Two days later, I got a call from a correspondent from the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. He said the Pontiff, Pope John Paul II, had heard what I was trying to do and thought it was a good idea. Right after that, I got a call from Cody,” he said. “He said he thought it was a good idea too.”

Today, Clements is a grandfather of eight.

On May 3, Holy Angels will hold a 3 p.m. Mass in Clements’ honor. Reflecting on his storied, 60-year career in the priesthood, Clements was asked what he’s going to be most proud of at his celebration. “The thing that will make me most happy is that I’ll have all four of my sons there that day,” he said. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

His first son, Joey, 45, adopted from Uhlich Children’s Home in 1981, lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Clements lives with his second son, Friday, 41, adopted from a Nigeria orphanage in 1982.

His third son, Stewart, also 41, whom he adopted from Baltimore, Maryland, after meeting him on an Oprah Winfrey show about adoptions before Winfrey came to Chicago, lives in Los Angeles.

And his fourth son, Saint Anthony, adopted in 1985, after the principal of Phillips High School called him for help with a troubled, neglected teen, lives in Honolulu.

Clements, who at one time traveled across the nation and world promoting his various social justice initiatives, juggling invitations, beloved by politicians and celebrities — when Holy Angels burned down in 1986, for instance, boxer Mike Tyson and Don King were among the famous who came to his aid with fundraisers here — retired in 2001. It’s when he returned to Illinois.

His path after leaving Chicago in 1991 had taken him to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky, for a year — followed by three years pastoring a tiny church in the poor Diocese of Nassau, the Bahamas.

Leaving the Bahamas in 1994, he settled in Washington, D.C., his new calling: to address the drug scourge with a One Church, One Addict program based on One Church, One Child, which at its peak was active in 37 states and credited with finding homes for 350,000 children.

The sister organization recruited church families to support recovering addicts, and Clements expanded the concept in 1999, with the One Church, One Inmate program.

“The whole idea behind the One Church concept is based on Matthew 25:35. Christ really did not ask us to try to save the world. He said just do what you can with whomever you can help. What he says is, ‘As long as you did it for the least of my brothers, you did it for me,'” Clements said.

On May 3, Holy Angels will hold a 3 p.m. Mass in Clements’ honor, followed by a 6 p.m. banquet at the Hilton Chicago. And in reflecting on his storied, 60-year career in the priesthood, what’s Clements going to be most proud of at his celebration?

“The thing that will make me most happy is that I’ll have all four of my sons there that day. I’m really, really proud of what they’ve accomplished. They haven’t become world leaders, but they haven’t been to jail, or on drugs, or anything like that. God is good,” the father said.