Rebel With a Cause: Brooklyn Priest Father John Powis


On the last day of May, Pentecost Sunday, 300 people filling the pews of Our Lady of Presentation Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn, rose to applaud one of their own.

Father John Powis, 75, is a monsignor and, as such, rates deep respect. But the applause had nothing to do with rank, and everything to do with honoring his 50 years of creative and Christly troublemaking since taking his vows in 1959.

Powis, wearing a bright red vestment, nodded and smiled in response. It was the same smile he wears in Housing Court when he hopes that the sight of a clerical collar under his flannel shirt might induce a judge to grant someone a stay of eviction. It was the same smile he turns on city inspectors when asking them to please just climb one more flight to see the really terrible conditions endured by the tenant on the top floor. He uses the smile as well to great effect on the foundations asked to fund his tiny advocacy group in the rectory at St. Barbara’s Church in Bushwick, where the poorest of the poor walk in unannounced all day with tangled tales of woe.

That has been his idea of retirement since he stepped down five years ago as pastor of St. Barbara’s, the majestic twin-spired church on Central Avenue. He spent 16 years there, presiding over one of the city’s poorest parishes. So many were eager to attend Mass that they spilled out into the street on Sundays. Before that, he put in a couple of years at St. Sylvester’s in the City Line neighborhood on Brooklyn’s eastern border, where he was raised, one of 10 brothers and sisters. And before that, he spent 25 years—a full career for most—presiding at Presentation, nestled at the junction of Rockaway and St. Marks avenues, where the trees stop on Eastern Parkway and pure inner city reality begins.

“This will always be my spiritual home,” he told the congregation on Sunday. He first walked these streets as a teenage altar boy, dispatched on Saturday afternoons to nearby Hopkinson Avenue to pick up bread for the Eucharist. “It struck me how I was the only white person around and yet people treated me very nicely.” Later, when he decided to become a priest, his idea was to head South, where the civil rights movement was stirring. An influential seminary teacher persuaded him that he could serve the same people right in Brooklyn. “They are coming up here in droves,” he was told.

He took his initial training in the Fort Greene housing projects, assisting an order of nuns devoted to the poor. “It was the best school you could ever go to,” he said. “We knocked on every door, Catholic and otherwise. Everyone knew us.” The training was supplemented by visits to Puerto Rico and Mexico, where he studied Spanish under Ivan Illich, the brilliant Catholic philosopher. “He refused to teach us the language unless we also learned the culture,” said Powis.

To earn pocket money, and because he loved the game, he worked the stands at Ebbets Field, selling hot dogs and beer as the Dodgers played their final Brooklyn seasons. In his sermon, he offered a small confession: “Sometimes the hot dogs were in the water so long they changed color. They told us to put a lot of mustard on them, which I did.”

He arrived at Presentation in 1963, a time when many whites, fearful of the blacks and Hispanics moving in, decided they would rather be someplace else. Powis led his own small reverse migration.

He never learned to drive a car. Who needed one? He walked or rode the bus. “In the middle of the night, the police stopped me. They said, ‘Father, are you crazy? Why are you wandering around out here alone?’ I told them I had to visit a sick parishioner. They wanted to give me a ride home. I said, ‘No thank you.’ “

His thinking was that the church should nourish body as well as spirit. Parishioners complained of few jobs, bad housing, and overcrowded schools, and he sought to bring his pulpit into the streets. He helped persuade the city to let some of Brownsville’s children ride buses to attend under-utilized schools in white neighborhoods. “It was a disaster,” he said. “They threw eggs and tomatoes at us. They crowded all our kids into one room on a separate floor.”

He and others urged an alternative on city officials. “We said, ‘Let us run our own schools.’ We wanted African-American and Hispanic principals. They would always pass the written test and then fail the oral interviews. We needed some people who understood the children. Well, we got African-American and Hispanic principals.” Here, the congregation at Presentation interrupted him with applause.

This became the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, a hopeful opportunity that quickly devolved into a bitter teachers’ union strike and a white-black split that echoes to this day. “It could have been something wonderful,” he says of it now. “But the teachers fought us from the moment it started. Once they turned on us, some of the parents also became too radical in response.”

Among the radicals was a trio who arrived at Presentation one evening asking Powis to write a letter for a job-seeking relative just out of jail. “I look up and they have three .45 automatics pointed at me.” He was ordered to open the church safe with its $1,800 in bingo money. “Twice I couldn’t open it. One of them says, ‘We usually just blow the heads off white men.’ ” The safe finally complied. Powis was gagged, hooded, and locked in a bathroom. When the police arrived, they showed him pictures of likely suspects. He recognized one of the robbers. It was Black Liberation Army leader JoAnne Chesimard, a/k/a Assata Shakur. “I didn’t know her, but I had heard that a few weeks before she and others had robbed and killed a white real estate broker on Howard Avenue. I guess I was lucky.”

The priest whose life the radicals spared continued his mission. When federal job training funds arrived in the mid-’70s, he helped local residents renovate five buildings on Pacific Street. A few years later, organizers from the Saul Alinsky–inspired Industrial Areas Foundation were invited into the neighborhood. Powis helped found what eventually became East Brooklyn Congregations. Leaders hatched plans for hundreds of one-family, low-cost homes to be built on East Brooklyn’s vacant, rubble-strewn tracts. They would be sold to those trapped in public housing, unable to afford homes of their own. Through confrontation and cajoling, the group won over Mayor Ed Koch to the program, dubbed Nehemiah, after the prophet who rebuilt Jerusalem.

“We have 4,000 beautiful little homes now, right here in Brooklyn and the South Bronx,” Powis told the congregation. “We have five foreclosures. People all over are being foreclosed because they paid too high a price. We have five. Nehemiah could work all over this country.”

He finished his sermon the way he had begun it. “This will always be my home,” he said as the wheezing of bus brakes was heard through the open windows. “I ride that 60 Wilson Avenue bus every day. I always think as I go by here that people should know that this is a place that is interested in my life, not just in my spirit.

“They say that I was what they call an activist priest. Well, maybe I was. I don’t complain and I’ve had a wonderful 50 years.” He closed with a prayer, asking to make the world a place of peace and justice. Then he walked slowly up the aisle in his red vestment, smiling and with his head bent forward.