Father Peter J. Powell, who devoted his life to the service of Native American people, died peacefully in his home in Chicago, surrounded by his family. He was 94 years old.
Peter J. Powell was born on July 2, 1928, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, to William and Helena (Teague) Powell. He attended his beloved Church Farm School and enrolled in Ripon College, and upon graduation entered seminary for the priesthood at Nashotah House in Oconomowoc, WI. After his ordination, he married his wife of 57 years, Virginia Lee Raisch, and moved to Chicago to begin his lifelong work serving the Native American community. In 1961, he founded St. Augustine’s Center, where, with deep spirituality and a wry sense of humor, he served Native American families in the city for the next 55 years. By its end, St. Augustine’s Center had served three generations and thousands of members of the Native American community.
Father Powell was an accomplished scholar of the Plains Indians. His first major work was Sweet Medicine. It was followed by the landmark People of the Sacred Mountain, which presents a history of the Northern Cheyenne chiefs and warrior societies, and won both the 1982 National Book Award in History and the Anisfield-Wolf Award in Race Relations. He began writing by kerosene lantern in Big Horn, WY, and finished both works at his scholarly home, the Newberry Library in Chicago. His most recent publication, In Sun’s Likeness and Power, received the Waldo F. Leland Prize, and his final study of Northern Cheyenne ledger art will be published posthumously.
Included amongst his many other distinctions were Guggenheim and Smithsonian fellowships, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, and several honorary doctorates. Father Powell cherished the many deep friendships he maintained with his mentors, colleagues, and members of the communities about which he wrote. These personal connections were the foundation of his ground-breaking work, and a source of lifelong happiness.
Peter Powell’s dedication to God was deep and unending, and he brought the joy of God to all manner of perhaps unexpected situations: teaching his grandchildren to play raucous card games; driving his family across the country in a station wagon with holes in the floor; or mowing the lawn in a Batman T-shirt. In his time out West, he could be found in the saddle or visiting family and friends in tribal lands across Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Oklahoma. He loved to sing old Bible folk songs with his children, and his voice will be dearly missed.
Father Powell is predeceased by his wife Virginia and granddaughter Meghan, and is survived by his four children, Katherine (Michael), Christine (John), John (Genai), and Pasha, his grandchildren Rebecca (Jonathan), Sean (Maggie), Peter (Katy), Nathaniel (Tanner), Caitlin, Matthew, and Ian, and his great-grandchildren Thomas and Isa.
In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Newberry Library in Chicago or the Brinton Museum in Big Horn, WY.