Few Messmer High School students knew who Fr. George Clements was before he came to their school on Jan. 30. They walked into the auditorium like it was just another school assembly.
But when they heard the 82-year-old priest speak, they realized they were with a special guest.
“I’m old,” he told the students. “But I don’t think old, I don’t act old, I don’t feel old.”
And with every declaration of how “old” he isn’t, the students cheered louder and louder.
“As a matter of fact, I don’t even look that old,” he said. “But I’m old.”
Since his ordination as a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1957, Fr. Clements has spent his life fighting for equality.
As a young priest, he was friends with Jesse Jackson.
“I guess you would call him a seminarian; he wasn’t a preacher yet,” he said. “But he was very proud of this preacher he called Martin Luther King (Jr.), and he wanted me to meet him.”
Fr. Clements told the students he spent a lot of time with King, sometimes shooting pool together or arguing with King. He added that there have been many “lies” told about King over the years.
“Too many folks over these past few weeks have tried to turn Dr. King into a nice, little, sweet, harmless, meek, mild, do-gooder,” he said. “In reality, Dr. King was a hustler.”
When King would come to Chicago, Fr. Clements would be among those who would pick him up at O’Hare International Airport.
“The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Well, you know I’m going to the pool hall,’” he said. “He would always try to make people think he didn’t know how to shoot pool, that he was just a beginner.”
Everyone playing would put their bets on the table and the game would begin.
“Then he’d rack those balls up and he’d take all our money,” Fr. Clements said, and the students laughed. “I told you he’s a hustler.”
Fr. Clements went on to say that King would be the same “hustler” as a civil rights leader.
With King for ‘I Have a Dream’ speech
On Aug. 28, 1963, Fr. Clements was with King in Washington, D.C., when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He remembers days later being with King in Miami.
“He said, when we were in that hotel room, ‘They heard me say I have a dream, but I truly hope that dream does not turn into a bloody nightmare,’” Fr. Clements said.
Fr. Clements said King was a “cold realist” and he believes the dream has become a nightmare and everyone must continue to stand up for what is right.
“There would never be a civil rights movement ever if it hadn’t been for the fact that we had many, many, many white people who stood up behind our black people and our Latino people, and who fought for our rights, and don’t you dare leave those white people out of this struggle,” Fr. Clements told the Messmer students. “They are the ones why we have a black president of the United States right now.”
On the day King was assassinated, April 4, 1968, Fr. Clements said he ran into St. Ambrose Church, on the south side of Chicago, where he was assigned at the time, and prayed.
“It hit me,” he said. “Dr. King is the same as all these other saints.”
Clashes with the cardinal
Then he said he did something that upset many people. He took down a statue of St. Anthony and replaced it with one of King. Soon after, he received a call from the then-archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal John Cody.
“He said, ‘Are you out of your mind? You better take that statue down right now. You’re not going to make some Protestant minister a saint,’” Fr. Clements said.
He added that he argued with Cardinal Cody that King embodied many traits of other Catholic saints.
“I said, ‘I’m not about to take it down. But I want you to know, if you want it down, you send somebody down here to take it down. And when they come out here, I can’t vouch for their safety when they get into the ‘hood,’” Fr. Clements said.
This was one of many clashes Fr. Clements had with Cardinal Cody.
Capuchin Br. Bob Smith, former Messmer president, grew up on the west side of Chicago and remembers the cardinal’s influence.
“He was second to the pope,” Br. Bob said. “He was the guy.”
Father becomes ‘dad’
One of his more infamous disagreements came in 1981 on the issue of adoption in the African-American community.
Fr. Clements, then at Holy Angels Parish on the south side of Chicago, said he was approached by the head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, a guy Fr. Clements described as a “big, jovial Irishman.” He came to talk to him about adoption in the African-American community.
“I told him I thought it was a serious problem, too, but then I kind of brushed him off,” he admitted. “Just before he was getting ready to leave he said, ‘Well, if you people are not interested in your own children, don’t expect us to be.’”
Fr. Clements was taken aback.
“I decided the best way to try to convince black people to adopt black children was to do it myself,” he said, adding he didn’t think it would spark any interest.
He was wrong. Word spread throughout Chicagoland and beyond about a priest wanting to adopt a child.
Soon after, he received a call from Cardinal Cody saying he couldn’t go through with the adoption.
“Right after he said that, I heard from Pope John Paul II and he said he thought it was a wonderful idea,” Fr. Clements said.
The word came from a reporter from L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper.
“He said the pope had heard the news and that they were looking for more information and that the pope was very pleased,” he said. “I know what he said was true because right after that, the cardinal called me and he was very pleased.”
One Church One Child begins
Fr. Clements started One Church One Child, in operation since 1981, which encourages church members to adopt or become foster parents.
“As it turned out, many of the churches had far more than just one (interested party) and it spread so that today there’s an estimate of 350,000 children that have gotten homes through One Church One Child,” Fr. Clements said.
Since priests aren’t taught in the seminary how to be parents, Fr. Clements was in a world of his own.
“I was having a lot of difficulty with that first one,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to continue the adoption.”
His first adopted son, Joey, was 9 years old when he came into his home.
“His very value system he had at the time was opposed to mine,” Fr. Clements said.
In 1982, while on an African trip, he met another orphan named Friday. Fr. Clements said he was different from his adopted son, more courteous and respectful, and he thought if he adopted him, perhaps he could influence change through “osmosis.”
He was right -– and wrong. Joey became kinder, but Friday became a bit more deviant.
A year later, he was invited to be on the Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about adoption. Several orphans waiting to be adopted were also on the show. One of the oldest was Stewart.
“He got on there saying, ‘I’m too old to adopt but I’m hoping that somebody out there in television would adopt some of the other kids,’” Fr. Clements remembered.
He asked him why he was too old to be adopted and Stewart replied that he was 10 years old and people don’t want to adopt kids that age or older.
“I said, ‘Well, all right, I’ll take you,’” Fr. Clements said.
In 1983, shortly after adopting Stewart, he received a call from the principal of Holy Angels School saying there was a boy found sleeping in the hallways of the school and on rooftops. The boy’s name was Saint Anthony and he had an alcoholic mother and no father.
“I wound up adopting him,” Fr. Clements said.
Adopting four boys was never the plan, but he said he never had any difficulty with the adoption process.
“There was no one really that would’ve adopted them had I not done it, so there was no real problem with that,” he said.
With four sons and a parish to manage, life was interesting for this parent-priest.
“One of the first things I had to learn was what they call ‘role reversal,’” Fr. Clements said. “I had to get used to the fact that these girls would actually call the rectory looking for one of my sons or even ring the door bell from time to time.”
He had to adjust his fatherhood style for each child, realizing there is no such thing as “one size fits all” parenting.
“You have to treat each child as an individual,” he said. “Because all four of my sons are totally different.”
Sons enrich ministry
As much as he’s changed his sons’ lives, they’ve also changed his.
“I can say my sermons have been enriched very, very much by my adoption, because I’m able to relate to parents,” he said.
He witnessed the weddings of all four of his sons and he’s grandfather to their eight children.
“I’m really overjoyed at my sons because just personally I know their love for me is genuine,” he said. “Sometimes they’re overly concerned, but I know they’re concerned because they do look at me like I’m their father.”
His mother, Aldonia, was a motherly presence for them. After raising six children of her own, having four more around wasn’t a problem.
“It just came to her so naturally,” Fr. Clements remembered. “By the time I got Joey, all of her children had become adults and she was delighted to exercise her maternal role.”
The boys “flocked” to her, he said.
“It was a relief to me because they were so close to her and they wanted to help her,” he said. “It was a good situation all the way around.”
In crosshairs of gangs
Fr. Clements was also active in stopping gang violence in Chicago.
“All the kids that he had in his parish were from the housing projects,” Br. Bob said. “The roughest ones in Chicago.”
By going against the status quo of crime and violence, Fr. Clements put himself in the crosshairs of the underworld bosses.
“The gangs are not to be messed with, but he was out there every day and it didn’t bother him,” Br. Bob said. “He was interfering with business.”
Young children were prime targets for gangs to boost their membership.
“The gangs in Chicago used to recruit in schools,” Br. Bob said. “I watched them come into, pretty much every public school and some of the Catholic schools. And then they’d go right into your home.”
He said children without fathers or strong schools to stop the gangs were the most vulnerable.
“They were not even gangs; they were nations. They were that big,” Br. Bob said.
Fr. Clements provided an avenue for kids to escape gang life. By creating a family atmosphere of support for those most vulnerable, he had a negative impact upon recruitment. Because of his actions at least one gang put a hit on him to try to stop him.
“Not just one time, several times,” he said. “I knew a lot of it was just fluff, just trying to intimidate. It didn’t phase me.”
Even as a dad he wasn’t scared, and no one in the neighborhood was scared for him.
“Our neighborhood was pretty rough and they were accustomed to the gang culture,” he said.
Meets Nelson Mandela
Erring on the side of caution, Fr. Clements traveled outside of the country to get away from threats. On one trip, he went to South Africa, shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He recalled the energy and enthusiasm that flowed through the country.
He went to the neighborhood where Mandela was living to be near the excitement. A reporter from the ABC-TV affiliate in Chicago recognized him and asked him if he wanted to meet Mandela.
“I just went to be near his house; I didn’t think I’d get to meet him,” he said.
Fr. Clements said yes and the reporter took him to Mandela’s house where the leader was eating when they arrived.
“He went in there and told him, there’s this Catholic priest here to see you,” Fr. Clements said.
Mandela got up from the table and began to walk over to him.
“I was really very nervous,” he said.
He shook Mandela’s hand.
“I said, ‘Mr. Mandela, it’s a pleasure to meet you. You are the leader of us all,’” Fr. Clements said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Oh, no. That was Jesus Christ.’”
Today, when Fr. Clements tells that story, he laughs. It’s a moment he won’t forget.
Future president comes for advice
In the early 1990s, Fr. Clements worked for One Church One Child and raised his family.
During this time, a young Harvard Law School graduate in his late 20s named Barack Obama reached out to him.
“I was involved with him pretty much when he came out of Harvard,” Fr. Clements said. “He came to Chicago and he wanted to go to the lowest socio-economic area in the city, because he was interested in being a community organizer.”
He said Obama needed to find out how poor people lived.
He took him to Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project, and to different parts of the city.
“He was very, very much interested in the plight of children who have no homes,” he said.
Fr. Clements remembers Obama as a guy concerned with putting people at ease.
“The best way he knew how to do that would be to tell jokes and to kid around,” he said. “He was always trying his best to make sure you were comfortable and that’s what I remember the most about him.”
In 1994, the priest broadened his ministry and started One Church One Addict.
“I decided the church was doing very little for those that are suffering from addiction and those that are starting to recover,” he said.
The program exists in about 5,000 churches, Catholic and non-Catholic. It teaches people about drug addiction and assigns the church a recovering addict.
“Churches have an obligation, a responsibility, a command to get involved with people who are sick,” he said.
He said addicts are sick people who need to go to hospitals, not jail.
Once more, he broadened his ministry; in 1999 he started One Church One Inmate, operating in more than 1,000 churches.
“He essentially named all the problems every parish and every neighborhood struggles with and then said we’re responsible,” Br. Bob said of all the One Church organizations.
Fr. Clements retired from active ministry in 1991 and rarely speaks in public.
The same day Fr. Clements braved the cold weather and came to Messmer to speak, President Obama was in Waukesha.
Just two days earlier, during his State of the Union speech, President Obama announced an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10.
“All the time he’s been president, his whole hallmark has been the poor,” Fr. Clements told the students. “For that reason there are so many people who hate, hate, hate him for that. He is trying right now, at this moment, to raise the minimum wage.”
Despite issues involving the Obama administration, Fr. Clements looks fondly at the work being done.
“I am so proud of him because he is not about to stop; he’s going to keep going and you’re going to have to pray for him,” he said. “Also for that matter, I want you to pray for our dear pope, Pope Francis. Because he, too, is like Barack … both of these men need your prayers.”
The priest concluded by urging the students to stay in school. They responded with roaring applause and a standing ovation.
“I always was curious, even growing up in Chicago, how somebody was unafraid to go and do and say things that he did,” Br. Bob said. “And, you know, I don’t know that I still have the answer other than its based on the Gospel and it’s based on faith.”