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The Very Rev. J.C. Michael Allen: Former dean of Christ Church Cathedral was crusader for justice

The Very Rev. J.C. Michael Allen
Christ Church Cathedral

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Very Rev. J.C. Michael Allen, who led the racially diverse, boisterous and often controversial Christ Church Cathedral Episcopal Church for more than two decades, died yesterday.

At the cathedral, Dean Allen started a shelter for the homeless, opened a child care center for children of the working poor and boldly proclaimed his support of abortion, gay rights and care for people with AIDS.

A phrase from one of Dean Allen’s memorial sermons epitomized his beliefs: “At this table we do not accept nor do we condone the ways of this world, the way we separate people from each other, separating rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight, black and white, and all the other ways we use to demean and belittle the people around us.”

Dean Allen died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday (Sept. 4, 2013) under hospice care at his home in Oakland in St. Louis County. He was 85.

“He was a tireless crusader for justice, particularly in the lives of the poorest and most marginalized among us,” wrote the Very Rev. Mike Kinman, Dean Allen’s successor, to the Christ Church Cathedral congregation.

Services for Dean Allen are being planned.

A ministry of justice

Dean Allen came to St. Louis after serving six years as dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. When he joined BDS in the ‘70s, the trustees had decided that the school should be “closed without incident,” unless the new dean could find an alternative means of support. He did.

After arriving amid tumult, Dean Allen had within a year successfully orchestrated a merger of Berkeley and Yale Divinity schools. In 2011, at the 40th anniversary of the merger, he was lauded as Berkeley’s “Fourth Founder” for putting together what is now regarded as “a powerful model for theological education in the twenty-first century.”

 Allen as a young priest
Credit Courtesy of the family
Allen as a young priest

Dean Allen brought his passion and formidable organizing skills to Christ Church Cathedral in August of 1976, where different challenges awaited.

His election to dean of Christ Church Cathedral meant, he said in an Episcopal announcement, “a return to the Church I love and the ministry to the city which has always been my life and my commitment.

"It is a great cathedral in a city as filled with hopes and dreams, curse and blight as any city in this country.”

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called 11 a.m. on Sunday morning “the most segregated hour of Christian America,” he didn’t have Christ Church Cathedral in mind. Dean Allen led a racially and culturally diverse congregation. Early on, he took a positive stand on abortion and gay rights and under his leadership, the church hosted the first interfaith meeting on AIDS. He was the first president of Doorways, an interfaith, nonprofit housing program for people with AIDS/HIV.

“He was instrumental in forming Doorways and it was a classic example of his leadership,” said Tom Rogers, a friend (along with his Rogers’ wife Kathy) he’d made as soon as he got to St. Louis.

With Priscilla Ridgely (nee Morison) Allen
Credit Courtesy of the family
With Priscilla Ridgely (nee Morison) Allen

His views were not welcomed by all in the faith community, but he was unwavering.

“He had a real presence and a passion for the underprivileged and disenfranchised,” Rogers said, “and he had complete aplomb. He knew that he was on the right side of whatever issue.” 

There was the time in 1995 when he was on the side of a Mehlville High School history teacher who told his class, while teaching about the Holocaust, that he was gay. The teacher said that fact would probably have cost him his life in Nazi Germany.

"If you're trying to teach history to young people, you have to make it personal to them," Dean Allen told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which was covering the controversy.

One of his most lasting legacies is his work with the poor. He opened a shelter for homeless people. It was later closed in favor of programs that the church could more easily handle such as free breakfasts and a day care center for children of the working poor.

A born activist

Jay Cooke Michael Allen was born in Paris, France, Oct. 26, 1927, the only child of Ruth Austin Allen and Jay Cooke Allen, a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War who worked at various times for the Chicago Daily Tribune, the News Chronicle and the New York Times.

He lived in Spain until he was 6, when his parents decided he would be safer living in Oregon with his maternal grandparents. The family eventually moved to New York.

Dean Allen received his bachelor of arts degree from Harvard University in 1950. His career was briefly interrupted by service in Japan with the Army Corps of Engineers. He was discharged at the rank of second lieutenant in 1954. He studied at the University of Paris and worked as a journalist for Look magazine before entering seminary. He earned his bachelor of divinity degree at Episcopal Theological (now Divinity) School, in Cambridge, Mass., and was ordained to the priesthood in 1957.

Dean Allen was named assistant minister at Grace Church in New York City for two years before becoming rector of St. Mark-in-the-Bowery in New York City. After an 11-year ministry at St. Mark's, he became dean of Berkeley School of Divinity in 1970.

Two years later, he was on a plane to Vietnam with folksinger and activist Joan Baez, Barry Romo of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Gen. Telford Taylor, the former chief counsel of the war crimes trials of Nazis at Nuremberg, Germany. They went to witness and deliver mail to prisoners of war. They survived the 11-day, U.S.-led Christmas bombing campaign over Hanoi and Haiphong.

During the ‘60s he participated in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma to Montgomery marches that became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and he was on-hand in Washington, D.C., for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“He will be remembered for his activities for justice and the oppressed,” said his daughter, Sarah Allen Wilson.

His activism continued in St. Louis. Here he weighed in on all of the societal and political issues of the day, including the Gulf War and stem cell research. In 1979, he and other church leaders pressed the White House on urban issues. Dean Allen chaired the policy committee of the Church and City Conference.

In 1982, he served as a director on the board of the Council for a Livable World, a campaign formed to support candidates and initiatives against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In tandem

Some of his work was very personal, such as his 1993 eulogy of Joseph Pulitzer Jr., who led the Post-Dispatch for nearly four decades, and the 1997 sermon he preached following the death of Princess Diana. The Post-Dispatch reported his lament, “We didn't expect the fairy tale princess to suffer. But Diana suffered so much, she could embrace the pain and poverty of others."

Dean Allen loved the arts and often enlisted local groups – the St. Louis Symphony, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and the St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre among them – to help sustain his work. The Lion in Winter and other period pieces were even performed at the church.

Michael and Priscilla Allen
Credit Courtesy of the family
Michael and Priscilla Allen

The 1990 Community Service Award from A World of Difference was among his honors for numerous and creative efforts.

His work was greatly enhanced by his partnership with his wife, whom he met while they were college students. The Rev. Priscilla Ridgely (nee Morison) Allen died Feb. 24. She joined the priesthood in the mid-80s and retired from Christ Church Cathedral as canon pastor at the same time her husband. Dean Allen preached his final Cathedral sermon on Sunday, June 7, 1998.

"God has only one vision: to send you and me forth to bring into his world a vision of justice and peace," the Post-Dispatch reported Dean Allen preaching. “Anything else is blasphemy."

Full retirement was short-lived. The husband/wife team was quickly pressed into service as assistant priests for the Episcopal of the Transfiguration in Lake Saint Louis. The two also became deeply involved in the Oasis project in the Diocese of Missouri (Episcopal) establishing open and inclusive congregations. He served on the board of Other Sheep, a multicultural ministry for sexual minorities.

“Wherever he served, he was an agent of change,” Dean Kinman said.

In addition to his wife of 63 years, Dean Allen was preceded in death by his parents.

Among his survivors are his three children, John (Jude) Morison Allen of Astoria, N.Y., Thomas Ridgely Allen of St. Louis and Sarah (Stephen) Allen Wilson of Morehead City, N.C., and three grandchildren, Michael Austin Lhotak, Samuel Morison Lhotak, and Kyra Elisabeth Allen.

Services will be held in the near future.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.