The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., that became famous for its controversial protests at funerals, is ill and in hospice care, family members and church officials confirmed today.
Phelps' estranged son, Nathan, first announced his father's condition Saturday night.
Fred Phelps is "on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka," Nathan Phelps wrote in a statement posted to his Facebook page Saturday night. The announcement quickly drew hundreds of comments.
Nathan Phelps also said his father had been excommunicated from the church, and that those who are in control of Westboro Baptist are preventing Phelps' relatives who left the church from seeing the ailing pastor.
Westboro Baptist's followers became infamous for staging protests at events including the funerals of U.S. service personnel, at which they claim the deaths are retribution for America's tolerance of homosexuality.
A spokesman for Westboro Baptist Church would not confirm that Phelps had been removed from the church he founded.
"We don't owe any talk to you about that," Steve Drain told the Topeka Capital-Journal. "We don't discuss our internal church dealings with anybody. It's only because of his notoriety that you are asking."
While Drain confirmed that Phelps recently went into hospice care, he said the controversial pastor is not close to death.
In an email to the newspaper, Nathan Phelps said his father had also been removed from the space above the church where he had lived for years. He was moved "to another house where he could be watched for fear of him hurting himself," the Capital-Journal says, citing the email.
The newspaper said it received a separate email today from Phelps' brother, Mark, that confirmed Nathan Phelps' account of their father's excommunication and declining health.
According to his website, Nathan Phelps currently lives in Canada. His site identifies him as an author who frequently speaks about gay rights, child abuse and religion.
In his statement posted last night, he acknowledged feeling a range of emotions at the news of his father's failing health, from sadness to anger.
Last year, Fred Phelps' granddaughters Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper made headlines as they described how they left the church. They traveled to meet with groups they had attacked, they said, in an effort to make amends.
Megan, who's now 28, told Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail:
"I'm at a complete loss. But I do know that I want to do good, to have empathy. Even though we intended to do good [with the picketing], we hurt a lot of people."
Here is Nathan Phelps' statement in full:
"I've learned that my father, Fred Phelps, Sr., pastor of the 'God Hates Fags' Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the 'church' back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas.
"I'm not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.
"I feel sad for all the hurt he's caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I'm bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes."