Clements, George 1932–
George Clements 1932–
Roman Catholic priest, social activist
In a long and often controversial career, George Clements has worked to improve educational opportunities for black Americans, to strengthen black families, to prevent drug and alcohol abuse in black communities, and to fight racism in the Catholic church and American society. When he left his post as pastor of one of the largest black Roman Catholic parishes in the United States in 1991, fellow priest Michael Pfleger, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune, called him “a truly prophetic voice,” and observed that Clements has “challenged the church to get out from behind the stained glass and dogma and deal with real issues.” From the early 1960s, when he was a civil rights activist and an advisor to the militant Black Panther Party, to the 1990s, when his antidrug campaign brought death threats from dealers and landed him in jail more than once, Clements has never wavered in his determination to merge preaching and practice and to make his church address the needs of his community. As Pfleger told the Chicago Tribune, “George, more than any other person in the country, has given credibility to the Catholic church for African-Americans. In a church that seems sometimes comatose, George is an active, passionate voice of conscience.”
Clements was the first black graduate of Quigley Seminary and upon his ordination in 1957 became one of only a few hundred black Catholic priests in the United States. He marched on Selma, Alabama, with renowned civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and later worked closely with the Black Panthers in Chicago, allowing them to use Holy Angels Church for meetings and other activities. When Dr. King was assassinated, Clements removed a statue of St. Anthony from the church and replaced it with an altar honoring King. His forthright activism has not always been looked on with favor by church officials, and Clements acknowledges he has sometimes made enemies. “I shoot my mouth off too much,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I’ve accused them of racism to their faces, and they don’t like that.”
Clements’s philosophy has always emphasized self-reliance and self-help; he believes, as a contributor to People wrote, that “people in poverty cannot afford to take handouts.” All of his campaigns—whether in support of educational reform and black adoption or in opposition to drug dealing—have sought to foster black self-reliance by organizing the black community to deal
Born George Harold Clements, January 26, 1932, in Chicago, IL; son of Samuel George (a Chicago city auditor) and Aldonia (Peters) Clements; children: Joey, St. Anthony, Friday, Stewart (all adopted). Education: Graduated from Quigley Seminary, 1945; received B.A. and M.A. from St. Mary of the Lake Seminary.
Ordained Roman Catholic priest, May 3,1957; served as associate pastor at St. Ambrose and St. Dorothy churches in Chicago, IL; Holy Angels Church, Chicago, pastor, 1969-1991; priest in the Diocese of Nassau, Bahamas, 1992—. Cofounder of One Church, One Child; founder and executive director of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus; served as chaplain of Chicago’s Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, Afro-American Firemen’s League, and Afro-American Postal Worker’s League; affiliated with Black Panther Party. Served on the board of directors of organizations such as the Better Boys Foundation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, Malcolm X College, Operation Breadbasket, the Black United Fund, and Paul Hall Boys Club.
Awards: Named priest of the year, 1977, by the Association of Chicago Priests; named honorary chief by the Yoruba tribe, 1987.
Addresses: c/o The Hermitage, POB N-8187, Nassau, Bahamas.
with its own problems and take responsibility for its own people. “When he first became pastor of Holy Angels in 1969,” Marilyn Marshall wrote in Ebony, “he made it clear to his parishioners that their church would be ‘a place where people could feel this was their parish, and not some parish Whites had left for them to use.’” Clements was determined that the church would be economically independent, which meant, he told Marshall, “that we were not going to beg wealthy or White parishes or anything else, and we were going to be able to subsist on our own.” He succeeded, more than doubling the church’s membership and nearly tripling its budget in his first twelve years as pastor.
Upon becoming pastor at Holy Angels, Clements also took over direction of the church school, the largest black Catholic elementary school in the country. Under his leadership, the school acquired a national reputation for its high academic standards as well as its strict discipline. “We bear down hard on our students,” he told Linda Witt in People, “because we have to give them the best preparation to deal with the white world.” Clements summed up the Holy Angels educational philosophy for Newsmakers editor Peter Gareffa in 1985: “We go twelve months a year.… We also expect youngsters to come on Saturdays if they are below grade level. We have a long school day: from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon.… We do have very strict discipline here, which we feel facilitates our academic thrust.… We feel that the extremely important nature of what we are doing, which is to hone students who are to compete in our society, that that takes precedence over whether people agree with us or not. We are not out to achieve popularity here, but we are out to achieve a high degree of academic excellence.”
The school’s philosophy also leans heavily on family involvement. While tuition is kept low, parents are required to participate in fund raising. The school also insists that parents come to pick up their children’s report cards in person and that students’ families attend mass at the church each Sunday. On one occasion, two hundred students were suspended because their parents failed to live up to this last provision in the contract that all parents whose children attend Holy Angels must sign. Clements told Gareffa: “We don’t want people to come in unless they are eager and interested and want to take advantage of our rules and regulations so that we can bring about a solid educational foundation for their children, and— more importantly—bring about a moral regeneration within their families.… We are using the school here as a tool for our real goal, which is, of course, the moral uplifting of the people who come here through their involvement with the Catholic Church.… The church is the reason we are here.… We have to continually remind people of that.”
Clements had long been concerned by the large number of black children growing up without traditional families and by regulations which made it especially difficult for blacks to adopt children. Blacks seeking to adopt are often turned down if they lack homeowner status or do not meet income or educational requirements. Father Clements had worked to improve the bureaucratic climate that has obstructed black adoption, and in November of 1980 he invited officials of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to a public meeting at Holy Angels Church to encourage adoption by black families. Only a handful of parishioners came to the meeting and, in spite of Clements’s appeal, none expressed willingness to adopt a child. Shocked by the lack of response, Clements decided to adopt a child himself and announced his intention from the pulpit three weeks later.
The priest’s decision to become a father made headlines, and church officials, most notably Cardinal John Cody, Clements’s superior, publicly expressed disapproval. In the end, however, they permitted Clements to proceed, and the priest adopted a 14-year-old boy named Joey. Clements’s action had the desired effect, spurring interest in the problem of homeless black children and increasing the number of adoptions by black families. Clements told Lynn Norment in Ebony: “The only reason Black people don’t adopt more often is because we aren’t aware of the extent of the problem.… When we do find out, we take action.” He emphasized, as always, the community’s responsibility for its own: “It is not the responsibility of [then U.S. president] Ronald Reagan to take care of homeless black children but the responsibility of the Black community itself. We spawned them, now we should take care of them.”
Clements joined with other black clergymen to found an organization called One Church, One Child: “If just one family in each Black church in the country would adopt a Black child, the problem of homeless Black children would be eliminated,” Norment quoted him as saying. The program spread rapidly throughout Illinois, and by 1989 there were chapters in 29 other states as well. According to Governing, more than three thousand black children have been adopted as a result of the program in Illinois alone. One Church, One Child won a Ford Foundation Innovations Award in 1986.
Though Father Clements initially expressed reservations about single-parent adoptions, telling Ebony in 1981 that “every child really does need—if at all possible—a father and a mother,” he went on to adopt three more sons over the next few years. Speaking of Joey, he told Norment, “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we have a good father-son relationship.” And he remarked to Gareffa, “[Parenting] has opened my horizons considerably, because I didn’t realize how narrow-minded I had become as a celibate bachelor.… I think it’s made me a better person. I’m certainly a lot less selfish than I was.”
In 1987, Clements was the subject of a made for television movie, The Father Clements Story, in which he was portrayed by Lou Gossett, Jr. The NBC-TV production, which also starred Jamal Warner as Joey, dramatized the adoption story. Clements told Jet, “I never dreamed I would be the subject of a movie. In fact, I never thought the adoption would get so much attention.”
In 1988, Father Clements and fellow South Side priest Pfleger took on the problem of widespread drug abuse in their communities. They began by asking local grocery and convenience stores to stop carrying drug paraphernalia; when this had only limited success, Clements, as he indicated to People, “got fed up with playing games.” The two priests then organized a boycott of stores that continued to sell such items as cocaine spoons, crack pipes, and roach clips. Some merchants complied with the priests’ demands; others did not. In June of 1989, a wholesaler refused to let Clements enter his warehouse to see what merchandise was being offered for sale. Clements pounded so hard on the glass door that it shattered, cutting him badly. He was arrested for trespassing and criminal damage to property, but the charges were dropped, and the Chicago Tribune praised his action in an editorial, saying “You have to hand it to Rev. George Clements. His methods may be excessive, but it’s easy to appreciate and admire his outrage.… Father Clements is unrepentant. ‘I’m not going to stand by and watch my people die,’ he said.” Clements was arrested again that same month in Shreveport, Louisiana, when he and comedian-activist Dick Gregory refused to leave a store where they were protesting paraphernalia sales.
Clements soon faced a more serious obstacle than jail: he began to receive death threats from drug dealers. The city of Chicago provided round-the-clock bodyguards, and while the dealers vandalized Clements’s car and fired a shot through the Holy Angels rectory window, they failed to impede his crusade. Clements was credited with moving the Illinois legislature to ban the sale of drug paraphernalia, and national drug policy director William Bennett, as quoted by Lauren Ina in the Washington Post, described him as “one of 20 people ‘on the true front line’ of the war on drugs.” In 1990, Clements escalated his war by going after the dealers directly, videotaping drug deals and turning the tapes over to police. “Anyone who does this can become the eyes of the police,” he told the Tribune’s Teresa Wiltz. “Let’s pull the covers off [drug dealers] and not stand back in fear. There are more of us than them.”
In June of 1991, Clements and Pfleger were again arrested for an act of civil disobedience, this time campaigning against alcohol abuse. In a campaign aimed at black men, the G. Heileman Brewing Company had announced plans to market a new malt liquor called Powermaster, with nearly twice the alcohol content of most beers. Clements and Pfleger defaced Powermaster billboards in Chicago and went to the company’s headquarters in Le Crosse, Wisconsin to protest to Heileman officials. When they were unable to meet with company officers, they refused to leave the building and were arrested for trespassing. But the protest proved effective; shortly after, Heileman scrapped Powermaster and its black-oriented ad campaign.
In 1986, Holy Angels Church burned to the ground. Father Clements said mass in a tent the next Sunday, and, as People reported, “He told his flock that he expected every wage earner present to tithe. ‘We want 10 per cent off the top,’ he said. ‘Holy Angels is not going to be rebuilt by outsiders. Nothing is wrong with us.’” Though he refused to ask for help, it came: over $55,000 in unsolicited donations in the first week. Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill offered their services free of charge, as did local construction firms. A modern, solar-powered church was dedicated on the site of the old one on June 9, 1991.
Only two weeks later, Clements announced he would step down as pastor of Holy Angels. “I’ve loved this work, but it’s past my time,” he told Ina. “I really haven’t had an opportunity to do a lot of things priests do.… I’ve missed things like being able to do counseling, to do a lot more preaching.… I certainly want to get involved in meditation, contemplation and retreats—back into doing some of the things that inspired me to be a priest in the first place.” It was announced that he would take a sabbatical before returning to priestly duties in the Bahamas. Clements also expressed a desire to do missionary work in Nigeria, where the Yoruba tribe awarded him the honorary title of “Cheif Omowale” in 1987.
The Chicago Tribune summed up Clements career at Holy Angels in a story headlined “Rev. Clements leaves behind quite a legacy,” calling him “an energetic, much-traveled activist, often-embroiled in controversy.” The paper noted especially the rebuilding of Holy Angels Church and the One Church, One Child organization, which Clements has said he considers his most important achievement, and quoted Bishop Wilton Gregory, who said Clements has “tirelessly served the interests of the church and fearlessly promoted social issues with unquestionable zeal.” As Clements’s friend and colleague Pfleger observed, “His witness to people is a much greater legacy.… He has touched people’s lives and raised their consciousness.”
(Editor) Black Catholic Men of God, National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, 1975.
Gareffa, Peter, editor, Newsmakers 1985 Cumulation, Gale, 1986.
Chicago Tribune, July 19, 1987; June 24, 1989; August 14, 1989; December 23, 1990; March 23, 1991; June 23, 1991; June 27, 1991; June 28, 1991.
Ebony, June 1981; March 1986.
Governing, October 1989.
Jet, December 4, 1980; December 14, 1987; June 26, 1989; April 29, 1991.
Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1991.
People, December 22, 1980; June 30, 1986; September 4, 1989.
Washington Post, June 29, 1991.
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