The priest who woke the West Side

Father Henry J. Browne (at left) with Mayor Robert F. Wagner (center) in an undated photo from the early 1960s. The priest, a fiery advocate for affordable housing on the Upper West Side, forged a deal with the mayor to save thousands of units of low-income housing. Photo courtesy of Flavia Alaya
As his birth centenary approaches, pols, preachers, parishioners, neighbors, scholars, loved ones — and comrades-in-arms — prepare to salute a charismatic cleric who championed the disenfranchised

One of the defining moments of old-time Upper West Side radicalism was the act of bestowing sanctuary on the Rev. Philip Berrigan.

It was the height of the Vietnam War, and the fugitive priest was on the run for burning and pouring blood on draft records in Maryland.

Along with his older brother, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, he had made the cover of Time magazine — and also the FBI’s most-wanted list.

So the younger Berrigan, like so many other anti-war activists, trod a path that led through the old wooden doors of the Church of St. Gregory the Great.

It was there, in the fourth-floor rectory at 144 West 90th St. between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, that Father Henry J. Browne vouchsafed shelter to the fleeing Berrigan.

At one level, this was a high-profile case of one rebel priest offering refuge to another with risks for both clerics.

But as it turns out, this wasn’t the only time that Browne, who was born in a West 35th Street tenement in Hell’s Kitchen in 1919, had provided safe haven. He’d done so many times before. And would do it again. In his vision of the priestly calling, it was all in a day’s work:

“The rectory was an aerie with a vast collection of books high above the street — and it made the perfect safe house,” said Flavia Alaya, a feminist scholar, author and professor, who shared a secret life with Browne. “He would use it to protect draft-dodgers and to house people escaping to Canada.”

Among the worshippers at St. Gregory’s, where he served as pastor, associate pastor and resident between 1958 and 1970, it was a truism that Browne was indeed a “man for all seasons.” They only knew half the story.

A pioneer in the Catholic social-justice movement and a founder in 1959 of the Strycker’s Bay Neighborhood Council, he was a crusader for peace, civil rights, tenants’ rights and affordable housing.

He was also a dynamic preacher, consummate flirt and spinner of yarns in the best Irish-American tradition, whose salty language often seemed to befit a longshoreman more than a priest.

It is this colorful legacy that will be celebrated on Saturday, Jan. 26 in “Cider, Donuts and Memories,” the first of two major community events marking the 100th anniversary of Browne’s birth. He died of leukemia in 1980 at the age of 61.

Presented by Strycker’s Bay, in the community room at 66 West 94th St. between 2 and 5 p.m., it’s billed as an informal reunion in which neighbors and parishioners will share their personal stories about his life, causes and indelible impact on the neighborhood he loved.

An audio-visual record will be created, and the stories, narratives and historical memories could figure in a larger centenary event on June 19, “An Appreciation of Activism on the Upper West Side,” which will focus on his life and times in the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.

“He was a priest, an academic, a scholar and an intellectual — but he could quickly code-switch to talk to Ms. Suarez, Ms. Jenkins or anybody else in need and help solve their problems by calling lawyers, housing officials, commissioners and elected officials,” said Kelley Williams, executive director of Strycker’s Bay since 1985.


One of Browne’s signature triumphs was a fight over the West Side Urban Renewal Area — a 20-square block tract bounded by 87th and 97th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and Central Park West — which the city had earmarked for wholesale demolition and rehabilitation in the late 1950s.

“He believed urban renewal would mean urban removal for folks living in the brownstone rooming houses, which were then on the side streets, and in the tenements on Columbus Avenue, which were left over from the old Ninth Avenue El,” said Karen Jorgensen a former executive director at Strycker’s and parishioner at St. Gregory’s.

After a years-long battle, a coalition led by Browne extracted a pledge in 1962 from Mayor Robert F. Wagner to up his commitment to low-income housing units — from a mere 400 in the original plan to 2,500. Luxury units were slashed from 5,000 to 1,300.

“You didn’t mess with him,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. “He was a big tall man with a big beard and a big voice, and he was bigger than life.”

To this day, she said, the West Side boasts 14 New York City Housing Authority brownstones and 30-plus low-income co-ops that wouldn’t exist if not for Browne.

“They would have gone to the highest bidder,” Brewer said. “He knew how to bring people together, and I can still see him leading the charge.”

An element of self-preservation entered the calculus: “Urban renewal was threatening to eviscerate his parish because the old Irish members and the new Puerto Rican members would have been displaced on a mass scale to make way for upper-income housing,” Alaya said.

So Browne pushed back against moneyed interests. “There was something bubbling up from the streets that was going to become the ‘60s,” she said.

“There was already a lot of political activism around the civil rights movement and the beginning of the feminist movement — and there were so many red-diaper babies living on the West Side it was bound to become a leftist energy center ... He was there waiting for an opportunity, and it presented itself,” she added.

No searching examination of that turbulent period can omit this simple truth: Father Browne was all too human.

As Commonweal Magazine wrote in 2004, referring both to his private life and the mid-1960s reforms stemming from Vatican II, “If the Latin Mass and fish on Friday could be done away with, why not, many asked, priestly celibacy as well?”

The church, of course, begged to differ. But that didn’t stop Browne and Alaya, 16 years his junior, from meeting and falling in love when they were both on Fulbright scholarships in Perugia, Italy, a tale she recounts in her 1999 memoir, “Under the Rose.”

He went on to pursue a secret life with a hidden family — two boys and a girl living with their mother in Ridgefield, N.J. — that he saw when he could slip away from his duties at St. Gregory’s.

Yes, he’d broken his priestly vows. But the miracles he wrought on the UWS still pertain:

“He had a role in helping shape the West Side as a more diverse, tolerant and culturally interesting place,” said Chris Browne, the second of his three children and a Brooklyn resident. ““He’s been gone now for 38 years. Yet we’re still talking about his work and life and legacy.”

So whatever happened to Philip Berrigan? On April 21, 1970, hours before a planned peace rally at St. Gregory’s where he was expected to turn himself in, FBI agents raided the rectory, broke a locked door and arrested the concealed priest.

Browne wasn’t pleased, but he told the feds they were always welcome in his church. And should they wish to return, he gave them the hours of Sunday masses.

Meanwhile, the anti-war militants gathered inside St. Gregory’s were restive. The priest quickly calmed them down. “If anybody gets violent tonight and takes off even a flake of paint in this church, I will personally knock his chops off,” he said.