Honoring Father Browne


Make text smaller Make text larger


On the 100th anniversary of the activist priest's birth, UWS community members gather to recall his life and work


Photos



  • Harry Browne talks about the lessons his father, Henry Browne, taught him about opposing violence and caring for others. Photo: Emily Higginbotham




  • Flavia Alaya, a feminist writer, speaks about her late husband, Henry Browne, and his legacy as her son, Chris Browne, looks on. Photo: Emily Higginbotham




  • Father Henry J. Browne (at left) with Mayor Robert F. Wagner (center) in an undated photo from the early 1960s. Photo courtesy of Flavia Alaya 




  • Father Henry J. Browne, in 1969 or 1970, on the steps of the garden apartment in New Jersey he shared with the mother of his three children. Photo courtesy of Flavia Alaya 



“You wanted to be with [Browne] because he was alive. He challenged you to think.”

Father John Duffell



If it hadn't been for one of his first principled stands as a young seminarian in 1948, Father Henry Browne might never had ended up on the West Side – where his activism and advocacy for peace, civil rights and tenants' rights still live on today. During that time, according to Father John Duffell, who was a student and friend of Browne, there was cemetery strike in New York. The Catholic Church ordered seminarians to fill in and dig graves. But Browne wouldn't cross the picket line.

“At the time, he had completed his studies at Catholic University and was ardent that this position was wrong,” Duffell said. “He and eight others denounced these actions.”

Instead, the church sent Browne to 82nd Street and West End Avenue to teach freshman civics at Cathedral College.

“It's how he got to the West Side,” Duffell said.

And it's how Browne got to St. Gregory's the Great Church, where he served as priest. And St. Gregory's was the site where Duffell told Browne's activist origin story to a crowd gathered for the event “An Appreciation of Activism on the Upper West Side” on June 19, meant to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Browne's birth. He died of leukemia in 1980 at the age of 61.

It was a night for community members — both past and present, made up of those who knew Browne when he was alive and those who knew him only as the protagonist of tales told of the crusades for fairness in the neighborhood — to join together in remembering the complex man Browne was known to be. He was a man of faith and a man who carried on a secret relationship with Flavia Alaya, for whom he would later leave his post at the parish to be with and so they could raise their three children together. They also knew him to be a pacifist, a preacher and a co-founder of the Stricker's Bay Neighborhood Council, a tenants' rights group that still pushes for affordable housing in the area.

Through his time on the West Side, attendees recalled, Browne helped men escaping the draft flee to Canada during the Vietnam War; he secured 2,500 low-income housing units and fought against the federal urban renewal program of the 1950s; and he inspired and touched the lives of many on the West Side.

“You wanted to be with Harry because he was alive,” Duffell said. “He challenged you to think, to recognize that you had ability.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer developed a relationship with Browne in the church basement, practicing protest songs with the other guitarists. She noted that Browne inspired her activism and public service.

Browne's eldest son, Harry, who lives in Ireland working as a journalist, spoke about his father making sure he and his siblings, all in attendance at St. Gregory's, knew how important it was to be a global citizen and to care for others of all races and nationalities.

“My dad died in 1980 and there were a couple of hard facts that happened in the world before he died. Ronald Reagan became president and John Paul II became the pope. He wasn't very happy with either of those gentlemen,” he said. “But in 1979 the Nicaraguan revolution succeeded. A dictator was out of power and that was a celebration in our home. Because the world was our home, and when dictators were toppled and people rose up and they made democracy in action.”

He said he learned from his father that it was important to stand against violence, especially when it's by the hand of the U.S. government.

“Insofar as people are occupied or whether it's in Belfast, in Gaza or anywhere else in the world, we stand with those people,” he said. “We stand in rage, in defiance and in solidarity. In our shared home, we are all human created equally in the eyes of God.”

As Browne's admirers reflected on his past, they talked about sharing Browne's legacy with the next generation of activists.

“Let's all make a commitment now, again, what is left of us and those of you who are young now, to carry that tradition into the future please,” Alaya, Browne's widow, asked of those gathered.

Tom Angotti, a professor emeritus of urban policy and planning at Hunter College, reminded the crowd that the work Browne started was not over — on the West Side and the rest of the city. Displacement of people of color and low-income people is a fundamental part of the country's history, Angotti said.

“We had the federal urban renewal program because property investments were strong enough to go to congress and get legislation passed that gave local governance the money and freedom to take the land from low income people, people of color, which is the history of the United States,” said Angotti.

Today, Angotti said, displacement is taking place at the hands of the real estate industry, through zoning, development and gentrification.

“In the last six years of the de Blasio administration, the mayor has proposed five mayor rezonings in communities of color. Every one of them was heavily contested, and every one of them passed,” he said. “We have let the officials who rely on the real estate industry as their primary source of funding. So we have to get it together again. We have to unite in protest.”





Make text smaller Make text larger

Comments



MUST READ NEWS

The heat is on
NYC strategists expect longshot presidential candidate Bill de Blasio to be aggressive in the second Democratic debate. But the latest poll and money numbers are grim
Read more »
Image

A day camp with a difference
A 20th precinct police officer and a city council member team up to create a new experience for children in the commmunity
Read more »
Image

A mother’s plea
A year after Australian cyclist Madison Jane Lyden was killed on CPW, her family calls for action to prevent further deaths
Read more »
Image

The Chelsea Hotel: A never-ending story
Eight years in, delays continue to dog the renovation of the legendary 23rd Street building
Read more »
Image

Why the lights went out
Con Ed blames relay system for outage that hit Times Square and the West Side
Read more »
Image

VIDEOS



Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters





MOST READ

Columns\Op-Ed
A mother’s plea
  • Jul 22, 2019
Local News
Yours Drewly
  • Jul 19, 2019
Local News
The Chelsea Hotel: A never-ending story
  • Jul 16, 2019
Local News
Generation Z on the cb
  • Jul 16, 2019
Local News
Why the lights went out
  • Jul 16, 2019

MOST COMMENTED