CYRIL HAMILTON POWLES 1918-2013
Speaking at Cyril’s memorial service yesterday, August 8, writer and longtime friend Joy Kogawa simply said, “He was my hero.”
And why so? Among other things, because after WWII he spent time in the Slocan Valley with the Canadians of Japanese ancestry who had been deported there in the panic of 1941; because he worked with her and others to persuade the federal government to offer an apology for this injustice as well as financial compensation, in the program known as Japanese Redress; and because he had been instrumental in the public apology made very recently by the Anglican diocese of New Westminster for its confiscation and sale during the war of the churches belonging to Anglicans of Japanese ancestry.
Cyril was born in Japan of missionary parents, his father eventually becoming a bishop in the Anglican Church of Japan, the Nippon Sei Ko Kai. He was the oldest of six, the younger five of which remain to mourn him. After schooling in Japan, he returned to Canada to complete his schooling, which culminated in the theological studies in Montreal which prepared him for ordination. It was while working with the Student Christian Movement that he met his partner in life, ministry and the seeking of justice, Marjorie Watson, who, now aged 99, survives him. (Marjorie’s autobiography, in which of course Cyril figures prominently, has been published: To a Strange Land: The Autobiography of Marjorie Agnes Powles. Dundas, ON: Artemis, 1993.)
After the war, he returned to Japan, accompanied by Marjorie. There they worked during the fifties and sixties, in university chaplaincy, and in teaching at Rikkyo University, where he taught religious studies and modern Japanese history. Returning to Canada in 1970, he did a PhD in Asian Studies at UBC, and then taught church history until 1984 at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. Some time later, he and Marjorie moved to Vancouver, where their sons lived. Living first near Granville Island, they later moved to Cavell Gardens, a beautiful seniors’ centre only two blocks from where I live, which meant for me the delight of frequent visiting. A special bond between us: we shared a subscription to the Guardian Weekly. It would arrive at my door on Friday morning, and I would try to take it over to him before the next Friday, something at which I regularly failed, although it always reached him eventually.
In 1973, when I was a tutor in the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity, and somewhat uncharacteristically afflicted with a moment of self-doubt, I asked him to tell me frankly if he thought I had what it took to do a PhD. He told me firmly that I did, wrote the letter of reference, and the rest is history (and theology!).
Cyril’s memorial was notable to me for the appropriateness of the words of the hymns chosen. Here are some lines from the opening hymn, written by New Zealander Shirley Erena Murray.
“Give thanks for those who made their life a light / caught from the Christ-flame, bursting through the night, / who touched the truth, / who burned for what is right, / Alleluia! Alleluia!”
One last glimpse of this beautiful man. His brother Percy, speaking at the memorial, told us about how Cyril, “resplendent in his beret,” as I recall his words, appeared on the front page of The Globe and Mail in 1973, when he took part in a demonstration in support of Cesar Chavez and the migrant workers of California (I was there as well). Their mother, he told us, was upset–about the publicity, of course, not the beret.
Cyril, thank you for being yourself. You became a beautiful elder, and a light and inspiration to all who knew you. May you rest in peace and rise in glory.