Missionary and educator Cyril Powles strove for justice

The Rev. Dr. Cyril Powles taught at Trinity College at the University of Toronto from 1970 to 1984. Photo: Anglican Church of Canada Archives.
The Rev. Dr. Cyril Powles taught at Trinity College at the University of Toronto from 1970 to 1984. Photo: Anglican Church of Canada Archives.
Published August 13, 2013

The Rev. Dr. Cyril Powles, an Anglican priest, missionary and university professor who devoted much of his life to working for justice, particularly for Japanese-Canadians, died on July 26 in Vancouver at the age of 94.

In a written tribute his friend the Rev. Dr. Donald Grayston shared with the Anglican Journal, he recounted that Japanese-Canadian writer Joy Kogawa spoke at the Aug. 8 memorial service for Powles and said simply ‘He was my hero.’

Grayston explained that Powles had earned that admiration after the Second World War ended when he spent time in the Slocan Valley in the interior of British Columbia where Japanese-Canadians had been interned during the war. Later, Powles worked with Kogawa and others to persuade the federal government to offer an apology and financial compensation. He was also “instrumental in the public apology made very recently by the diocese of New Westminster for its confiscation and sale during the war of the churches belonging to Anglicans of Japanese ancestry,” Grayston added.

Powles had a lifelong connection with Japan. He was born there while his father was a bishop in the Anglican Church of Japan, the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, and lived there until he was 15. After completing a degree at McGill University and the Montreal Diocesan Theological College, he was ordained a priest in 1944. He worked in the parish of St. Matthews Church, Montreal for two years and as the dean of residence at the diocesan theological college for another two. He also earned a masters degree in Japanese language and history from Harvard University.

Grayston wrote that Powles met his future wife, Marjorie Watson, while working with the Student Christian Movement in Montreal, and she became his “partner if life, ministry and seeking justice.” In 1948, Powles returned to Japan with Marjorie to work as missionaries with the Anglican Church of Japan. During the ’50s and ’60s, Grayston noted, Powles worked in university chaplaincy and taught religious studies and modern Japanese history at Rikkyo University. The family returned to Canada in 1970, and Powles completed a PhD in Asian studies at UBC. He went to teach church history at Trinity College in the University of Toronto until he retired in 1984.

When he retired, Bishop Terry Brown and Dr. Christopher Lind edited a festschrift, or a book of essays, in honour of the couple’s work (Justice as Mission: An Agenda for the Church. Burlington, ON: Trinity Press, 1985).

Bishop Brown, who is the retired bishop of Malaita, Anglican Church of Melanesia, has recently returned to Canada and he told the Journal that over the years the Powles had become like second parents to him. He began studying in Powles courses on Third World Christianity at Trinity in 1971 and later Powles was his doctoral supervisor. When he was first ordained, Bishop Brown worked overseas for the first time and said he was strongly influenced by Powles’ teachings about mission and the importance of the local church. “I think he really shaped the mission theology of the Anglican Church of Canada in the 70s and 80s. Still, in spite of not sending very many people, we still have a pretty good reputation for partnership and mutuality,” he said.

Brown also talked about Powles deep sense of injustice in the world and his commitment to working for social justice, mentioning his support for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Caesar Chavez and the farm workers union, the peace and nuclear disarmament movement, and the ordination of women. “He wasn’t afraid of unpopular causes,” Brown added. When Anglican priest Jim Ferry was suspended for being in a gay relationship, Powles testified in support of him, even though it “didn’t make him very popular with the diocese” of Toronto at the time, Brown said.

Powles is survived by his wife of 67 years, Marjorie; his son Peter as well as daughter-in-law Michelle; brothers Bill and Percival, as well as sisters Joy, Isabel and Kathy. There are also many nephews, nieces, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He was predeceased by his older son John and daughter-in-law Momoko.


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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