When legendary priest and Evergreen Park resident George Clements adopted his first son Joey over 30 years ago, he didn’t expect such a global uproar in the Catholic community. It was the first time a priest had ever attempted to adopt a child, but after then-Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago John Patrick Cody forbade him, Pope John Paul II overruled.
For more than 50 years, Clements, now 80, has been celebrated as a faith leader and Civil Rights activist, but he now has “Gatekeeper” to had to his extraordinary litany of accomplishments. He is among seven civic and religious leaders that will be honored this autumn with a living memorial at’s Gatekeepers Garden.
At just 13 years old, Clements said he decided he wanted to become a priest, “because of the example I saw with the priests and the parish I was in—Corpus Christie.” So into study Clements went, eventually becoming the first African American to graduate from Chicago-based Quigley Academy Seminary in 1945. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1957. Clements would go on to champion the Civil Rights Movement marching alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s and become pastor of Holy Angels Catholic Church, a position he held until 1991.
But with all of his accomplishments, Clements says the adoption of his first son has been the pinnacle of his life in ministry. He undoubtedly sparked a revolution in the Catholic church, and aside from catching the ear of the Vatican, “through my adoption, I’ve been able to find homes for thousands of children and I would certainly have to say that that’s the high point,” Clements said. After adopting his first son, Clements founded One Church, One Child, which connects children with families in churches either through adoption or foster parenting. He later founded One Church, One Addict and One Church, One Inmate, which does the same for those afflicted by an addiction and recently released from jail.
Becoming a Gatekeeper
This recent honor, Clements says, directly correlates with personal philosophy.
“I would like very much to get more people involved in working together for goals that are really necessary,” said Clements, “and that’s one of the reasons why I’m so interested in the Gatekeepers, because these are people who have come from different denominational backgrounds but we’re all working together for a common cause. The main thing I can see in the future is the whole thing of cooperation among diverse groups of people.”
Clements will join the ranks of several civil and religious leaders in Chicago: Rev. Dr. Clay Evans, founder of the Fellowship Baptist Church and civil rights leader; Apostle R.D. Henton, founder of the Monument of Faith Church and CEO of Breakthrough Ministries; Rev. Dr. Mildred Harris, founder pastor and CEO of God First Church and Ministries, and commissioner of the Chicago Housing Authorities; Dr. B. Herbert Martin, Sr., minister and civil and human rights activist; Rev. Willie T. Barrow, minister and civil rights leader; and Bishop Cody Marshall, founder and pastor of Freedom Temple Church of God in Christ.
“People can look at these gatekeepers and say, well if they can come from all of these different backgrounds and work together, well then why can’t all of us,” said Clements. “Why is it that we are all supposedly working for the same goal, which is one day to be at peace in heaven, and we can’t just drop all of the peripheral issues and work toward that common goal,” asked Clements.” And we can do that, of course, with peace, love and with having all of the moral virtues that would help all of us to come together.”
Clements continued, saying that “I have always felt that it seemed so absolutely ridiculous for anyone that is in a particular denomination to think that they enhance their denomination buy knocking somebody else’s...I think what we should be doing is looking at all the commonalities that we have and not the differences. You can’t accomplish anything by just staying in your little niche.”
A funeral service honoring “living legends” is very unique, Clements says, and causes him to ponder the purpose the service serves in the community as it relates to his daily goal to “Carpe Diem—seize the day.”
“I have always felt that people have the wrong idea, many of them, about what is supposed to be accomplished through places where we bury our dead. And that is, they don’t understand that the person who has died has just done that. He or she is gone and we have these societies, organizations, institutions, whatever you want to call them, that are really for the living,” Clements said. “The living are the ones who come to the wakes and to the funerals and all, and who are supposed to be inspired by the those who have died.”
Nevertheless, Clements said, “We need to concentrate on what we can do, and what we can do is help those people who are still alive, especially you, to make this a better world for them. The ones who are dead, the best we can do is pray and let it go with that, because they are dead.”
With his eyes on the present, the modest Clements has no qualms of the past. “I have no regrets for having become a priest. I feel that I had a vocation and I followed through on it and I’m very pleased with what has happened. There’s certainly no way I could have foreseen all of the ups and downs, but it is what it is and I have no regrets,” he said.
Clements’ list of accomplishments goes on. In 1977, he was named Priest of the Year by the Association of Chicago Priests, and was a North American Council on Adoptable Children award winner in 1982. He was named an honorary chief by a Yoruba tribe in Nigeria in the late 80’s. Clements’ life story was played out in front of the silver screen in “The Father Clements Story,” a made-for-television movie about his life starring Lou Gosset, Jr., Carroll O’Connor and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. In 2002, the Kentucky State Legislature passed a resolution honoring him for his service. Clements celebrated his Golden Jubilee, 50th year as a Roman Catholic priest in Chicago in 2007. In addition to the Gatekeepers Garden honor, in October of this year, Clements will be honored by the Georga Doty Hepatitis C Organization as Health Advocate of the Year and a new chairman of the organization. Among his many responsibilities, Clements also serves as the religious community liaison to help revitalize the Burr Oak Cemetery.
Although he remains active, after 55 years of starting several new initiatives, Clements feels that it’s time to pass the torch onto the next generation. “I feel at this stage, there are others coming along behind me that should be taking the back road…I’ll leave that for people who are much younger than me.”
Serving God and his community with a warm persona and infectious smile, Clements adamantly lives in the moment.
“I have never been one who talks about the good ‘ole days. I do not feel that they were good ‘ole days at all. I feel that the good ‘ole days are right now. I feel that it is extremely important for us to seize the day and live in the present,” Clements said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be here tomorrow and I definitely know there’s nothing I can do about yesterday, but what I can do is try to make today the best I possibly can for as many people as I know.”
Clements urges us all to “Live in the present. Deal with the present. Don’t spend all of your time moaning and groaning about the past, which is over.”
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