• Bishop Jessie McClay
  • 103 years old
  • Lived in South Philadelphia
  • For years he owned his own dry cleaners and worked as a tailor before becoming a full-time clergyman

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Bishop Jessie McClay told his family he received a message from God, urging him to close his dry-cleaning business and convert it into a church.

God told him: “You are cleaning clothes, but now, I want you to clean souls,” his son said.

So in 1967, Bishop McClay closed the dry cleaners he operated as Jessie and Sons at 1300 S. 22nd St. and started the New Hope of Deliverance Church.

“His faith in God was so strong. He became a full-time minister, and we never went hungry,” said Elder Andrew McClay, one of Bishop McClay’s children.

Bishop McClay died Thursday, April 1, at the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center after contracting COVID-19, family members said. He was 103 and lived in South Philadelphia.

Initially, Bishop McClay was hospitalized for dehydration. He appeared to be getting stronger, said Elder Paul McClay, another of the bishop’s sons. But the hospital called to say he suddenly became weaker and died after testing positive for COVID-19.

“He taught us to live right, to treat your neighbors right. And he taught us how to love one another. How to live a holy, separated life from the world,” Paul McClay said.

Bishop McClay was born in Newport, Ark., on Sept. 14, 1917, the third of four children of Frozella Johnson-McClay and Jessie McClay.

In Arkansas, the school for Black children ended at the eighth grade. So young Jessie McClay began doing farmwork with his father. In 1943, he joined the Army.

After serving two years, he returned to Newport before eventually moving to St. Louis to live with an older sister. There, he found work as a tailor apprentice at a dry-cleaning business. He also became an active young preacher in the Church of God in Christ.

After nine years in St. Louis, Bishop McClay told his family he dreamed God wanted him to move to Philadelphia, where he arrived Aug. 1, 1954, with just $37 and a trunk of clothing.

It was a Sunday afternoon. He got a room at the Christian Street YMCA and later that day he found his way to the Holy Temple Church of God in Christ in West Philadelphia, a church that a minister in St. Louis had advised him to seek out for guidance.

By November, Bishop McClay was working as a pastor at New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ, then in South Philadelphia. During a revival meeting one night, he met Laurine Hudson, a young woman who was visiting from another church.

“He told the other minister, ‘That’s the kind of woman I’d like to marry,’” Andrew McClay said. He was 37 and she was 21. They were married the following June 12, 1955.

“He was silent, but he always cared,” Andrew McClay said of his father’s parenting style. “He always knew when something was going on with you.”

Although their home was full with six children — four boys and two girls — the McClays were known for opening their doors to anyone who needed a place to stay.

“We had so many boarders, people who were in need or who were going through something and needed a place to say. My father would allow them to come live with us, some for six months, or a year or two years,” Paul McClay said. “They became a part of the family.”

Eventually, the McClays adopted another son, Warren.

Mrs. McClay died in January 2012 and Bishop McClay often told his children he was grateful to have been married to one woman for 56 years, six months, and 25 days.

In addition to his sons Andrew, Paul, and Warren, Bishop McClay is survived by sons Ivan and Jessie; daughters Doreen McClay and Laurie Johnson; 17 grandchildren; and many other relatives and friends.

A funeral was held April 10.