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Msgr. John Powis, Champion of Brooklyn’s Poor and Downtrodden, Dies at 87

“He is known by generations of Latinos who often survive only on his ability to catch people who start wandering in despair and bring them back to try again and hope with him,” Jimmy Breslin wrote in “The Church That Forgot Christ” (2004).

In 1963, he was named pastor of Our Lady, where he joined demonstrations against the city’s plans to remove fire alarm boxes on the street and appeared in Housing Court on behalf of residents to stave off evictions. He let some who were evicted stay in the rectory.

Michael Gecan, who was chief Brooklyn organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national community organizing group and a pivotal figure in the Nehemiah Project, said that Father Powis was an adherent of “something we call ‘public love’ — a deep connection with parishioners and neighbors, a commitment to them that is unbreakable, and a spirit of hope and possibility that others feel and respond to.”

People didn’t always respond that way. One morning in 1972, he was forced at gunpoint to open a safe and relinquish $1,800 in bingo money by JoAnne Chesimard and two other members of the Black Liberation Army. When he struggled with the combination, one said, “We usually just blow the heads off white men,” he told the Village Voice in 2009. “I guess I was lucky.”

He later became active in an organization of progressive priests called Voice of the Ordained.

“He was a trusted go-to shoulder to cry on for so many people,” said Fran Barrett, a state coordinator for nonprofit agencies. “And yet he found the joy and love in life, and the spirit of trying to do good in everyone,” she added. (Father Powis presided over her wedding to Wayne Barrett, the journalist and author.)

Combustible about social injustice and consoling in personal crises, Father Powis straddled his civic and ecclesiastical roles by often wearing a nonthreatening flannel shirt over his clerical garb. He viewed his parishes as a church without walls, ministering to anyone in need on the street and to those who lined up nightly waiting for him to lighten their woes, if merely by listening without being judgmental.

“We try to connect religion with real life,” Father Powis told The Times in 2000. “Religion is not an opiate. You have to be involved and make a change in the community.”