Philip Allen remembered for groundbreaking Native American ministry

Published March 26, 2010


About 170 family members and friends from across the country gathered March 20 in Minneapolis to celebrate the 75th birthday of the Rev. Philip Allen, well-known throughout the Episcopal Church for his ministry among Native peoples.

He died two days later in Minneapolis, surrounded by family.

“He was very happy that he was able to go [to the party]. I think he held on for that,” recalled his daughter Susan Allen during a March 24 telephone interview from Minneapolis.

She said the senior Allen, who had been battling lung cancer since last December, wasn’t strong enough to thank partygoers himself but “he gave instructions about what to say” on his behalf.
An Oglala Lakota, Allen was the great-grandson of Major Charles Wesley Allen, who owned the Martin Messenger newspaper and was a South Dakota state legislator. Major Allen memorialized the 1890 battle of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in From Fort Laramie to Wounded Knee. His eyewitness account of the battle was written in the early 1930s but his memoirs were unpublished for more than 60 years, until the University of Nebraska Press printed them in 1997.

Philip Allen had recently completed his own memoirs, including his Wounded Knee experiences, when he served as a negotiator, his daughter said. The 1973 standoff between American Indian Movement members and federal and local law enforcement agencies was sparked by intolerable living conditions at the Pine Ridge Reservation, located in one of the consistently poorest counties in the country.

“It’s a very personal story but at the same time it shows the history of his family, starting with his great-grandfather Charles Wesley Allen, a reporter who covered the Wounded Knee Massacre,” Susan Allen said.

It also includes reflections about Allen’s more than 30 years of ministry to Native people in the dioceses of South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, Utah and Navajoland, as well as his extensive participation in the wider Episcopal Church, she said.

“The most gratifying part of the ministry over the years was serving on some national committees of the Episcopal Church, and sharing with the larger church some of the concerns and problems in Indian ministry,” Allen told a reporter during a 1998 interview with the Bennett County Booster II newspaper in Martin, South Dakota.

“I was able to open a lot of doors that had been closed and increase support of Indian work,” he said in that interview. “As a result of all that, at least in the Episcopal Church, there are more Indian people serving on church committees both locally and nationally. That’s the most gratifying part, that those doors were opened,” he said.

He had served as: board member for the department of Indian work in the Diocese of Minnesota; chairman of the national committee on Indian work of the Episcopal Church; a member of Executive Council and a member of the executive council of Province VI. He served as a member of the Coalition for Human Needs Commission and the Presiding Bishop’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Indian Affairs, and was active in many community boards and organizations throughout his life.

The Rev. George Werner said he and Allen were classmates at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. “Phil was the voice of his people in our area,” recalled Werner, the 31st president of the House of Deputies.

“He bravely and brilliantly represented the interests of his and other tribal groups and poked holes in stereotypes,” Werner said. “He always seemed to lead with gentleness, humility and a sense of grace. But he also had a wonderful laugh and sense of joy. I loved reconnecting with him at General Convention, where he was also a recognized leader. I was blessed to know him.”

Allen served on the board of directors of the Juel Fairbanks Chemical Dependency Services, a residential program for Native American and other underserved populations in St. Paul.

He also sought to empower and mentor Native lay and ordained leadership, his daughter Susan said.

“It was one reason he didn’t stay any place very long, he didn’t want the work to be about him, he wanted to train others,” she said. “He did a lot of that training all over the country.”

The Rev. Melanie Spears recalled being mentored and later hired by Allen in 1991 to serve as his associate at the All Saints Indian Mission Church in Minneapolis.

“He was like another father for me, and I’d say that was true for a lot of people who came through the ordination process,” she recalled in a telephone interview March 24. “He had this love for everyone … (and) a passion for justice and for making sure everyone had a chance.”

Allen was born March 18, 1935 at the Pine Ridge Reservation. He was valedictorian of the 1953 graduating class at Todd County High School, which he attended while living at the Bishop Hare Home for Boys in Mission.

“Those were happy days,” he recalled during that 1998 interview, adding that while at the Bishop Hare Home he began to consider following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, the Rev. Charles Brugier, and becoming an Episcopal priest.

He graduated from Black Hills State College in 1959. On August 8, 1961, he married Helen Smith, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, a year before he graduated from the Berkeley Divinity School.

Prior to his June 1964 ordination as a deacon, he served a year as a lay pastor at the Ute Indian Reservation in Utah. He was ordained a priest in December 1964, and served five churches on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota for the next four years.

In 1968 the Allens moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where he served at St. Paul’s Indian Mission and worked at the Sioux City American Indian Center.

He served as Indian student advisor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, from 1972 to 1975, before moving to St. Mary’s Church in Nixon on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation in northwestern Nevada for three years.

In 1978 he moved to the Navajoland Area Mission, where he pastored the Church of the Good Shepherd in Fort Defiance, Arizona, along with five other mission congregations on the Navajo reservation.

He became vicar of the All Saints Indian Mission Church in Minneapolis in 1985. In 1992 he began serving as the Archdeacon for Indian Work for the Diocese of Minnesota.
In 1992, Yale University conferred an honorary doctor of divinity degree upon him in recognition of the depth and scope of his ministry.

He retired from active ministry three years later, returning to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he opened the Allen Trading Post. Like his ancestor Charles Wesley Allen, he and his wife sold Native arts and crafts. She died March 22, 2005.

That same year, Allen accepted Bishop Creighton Robertson’s invitation to serve as Archdeacon of the Niobrara Deanery in the Diocese of South Dakota.

Eventually, he retired again and returned to Minnesota, where his three children reside.
In addition to Susan, Allen is survived by a son, Joseph, and another daughter, Martha; five sisters; six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A brother, Don, predeceased him.

A wake will be held at the All Saints Episcopal Indian Mission Church at 5 p.m. Friday, March 26 in Minneapolis.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Saturday, March 27 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis.

Burial will be at 2 p.m. Monday, March 29 at the Bishop Harold Jones Center in Mission, South Dakota.


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