A Chicago Ghetto Priest Rebuilds on the Foundation of a Ruined Church and An Unbroken Spirit

UPDATED 06/30/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/30/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

On the morning of the fire, the Rev. George Clements stood outside and saw his church wreathed in flames. As firemen battled the blaze, Clements pinned his hopes on the cross that rose from the steeple. As long as the cross remained, he reasoned, somehow the church would be spared. When, finally, it fell, Clements lost hope—but only for a moment. "Holy Angels is not a building, but people," the Roman Catholic priest declared later before the smoldering wreck of his sanctuary. "It will become stronger than it ever was."

Father Clements is, in a word, indomitable. And so, it seemed, was the Holy Angels Church, the elegantly appointed 19th-century structure from which, for 17 years, he had been indivisible. A civil rights activist who marched at Selma and was once a religious adviser to Chicago's Black Panthers, Clements helped turn Holy Angels into a symbol of hope on Chicago's blighted South Side.

It is Clements' belief that people in poverty cannot afford to take handouts. Thus, parents of the 1,300 students in the Holy Angels elementary school, a third of whom are on welfare, are required not only to pay tuition of $30 a month, but to raise another $30 through activities including bake sales and raffles. In 1980 Father Clements extended his notion of self-help to the area of adoption. He started the organization called One Church—One Child, which used the greater church network to place unwanted kids with adoptive parents, first in Illinois and eventually across the U.S. A resounding success, the organization got a push in the right direction when Clements adopted three hard-to-place teenagers himself.

Clements is like that—the sort of clergyman who countenances no division between preaching and practice. He was concerned also that his parishioners "get the right signals" from the loss of their church two weeks ago. On the Sunday after the fire, Clements conducted Mass in a tent at the foot of the church steps. He told his flock that he expected every wage earner present to tithe. "We want 10 percent off the top," he said. "Holy Angels is not going to be rebuilt by outsiders. Nothing is wrong with us."

Something was, in fact, very right with Father Clements and his parishioners—and people all over the nation knew it. Money and services flooded in from "outsiders"—more than $55,000 in unsolicited donations in just the first week. The good padre was shaken to his philosophical foundations. "I've always said, 'How can you have self-respect and have your hand out begging?' " he says. "Now I have to say you can do it if you have the utter devastation that we have. I am thrilled by the outpouring from people of all walks of life."

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