Eleonore and Oliver Powell, co-founders of the United Church of Christ Parents of Lesbians and Gays, were both born and raised in New York City. They met at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, New York, where they were active youth. Their friendship grew eventually into more as the younger Eleonore entered Hunter College and Oliver determined that he would attend seminary. Eleonore’s mother was a nurse who cared for Oliver’s grandmother and they came to know each other well during this time. Oliver graduated from NYU with plans to teach romance languages but the Depression offered few opportunities at that time. Active in his church, his pastor encouraged him to attend Princeton, then the go-to seminary for Presbyterians. However, Oliver needed to remain in NYC, closer to his family, and chose to enroll in Union Theological Seminary. Considered to be too “radical” a school for the Presbyterians, his church withdrew any support for him. Oliver discovered the Congregational Church and became affiliated during seminary.
Eleonore dropped out of Hunter to take a job while Oliver completed his seminary training with his stated commitment to her that she would return to college to earn her degree as soon as possible. Three children later, she did return to college and graduated in 1964 with her B.S. from Rosary College in the Chicago area (now Dominican University) and began her career as a dietician. This was the same year that their youngest, Lois (Loey), graduated from 8th grade and oldest, David, graduated from college. It was also a year after the death of their middle child, Jonathan, at age 17, a traumatic loss which shaped their lives in many ways.
Oliver served in ministry in several ways during his career, first as the national secretary for Pilgrim Fellowship, the Congregational Church’s program for youth. His leadership and mentorship during this time is remembered as central to the development of many young women and men who later became leaders in the UCC. He was a new church start pastor in Evanston, Illinois where their two sons were born, and senior pastor in Worcester, Massachusetts where Loey was born, in Oak Park, Illinois and in Winchester, Massachusetts. He retired from the ministry in 1977 as the Boston metropolitan area minister for the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ. During this time, Oliver taught polity at Andover Newton School of Theology and was a trusted ally and support for women in ministry and a confidant for lgbt ministers and seminarians struggling to find a place in the church. Oliver’s passions also included opera, mountains, and gardening, and he reveled in being a grandfather and great-grandfather.
After completing college and becoming a certified dietician, Eleonore worked in hospitals in the Chicago and Boston areas until retirement, fully enjoying making institutional food taste delicious and educating doctors on nutrition. She was an unconventional minister’s wife, never caving into the usual expectations while at the same time being fully supportive of Oliver, as he was of her.
When their daughter, Loey, came out to them in 1974 during her Pacific School of Religion years, they responded with love and acceptance. They also knew the path ahead for her would be difficult but they never wavered in their love. They started to attend national gatherings of the then United Church Gay Caucus (now the UCC Open and Affirming Coalition) and were quickly “adopted” as parents by many lgbt members whose own families were less than accepting. They also began to be contacted by other parents who were processing in various ways knowledge of their own children’s sexual identity and orientation. They realized that it would be helpful to set up a network of support and established the UCC Parents of Gays and Lesbians. Over the years, they counseled many parents, spoke at church gatherings, and expanded the space of love and acceptance so needed. Having lost a child to natural causes, Eleonore would say to those who expressed disgust at their own child’s sexuality, “I lost one child and that was the most painful experience a mother could go through. I would never chose to willing lose another.”
It is hard to know just how many lives were changed through Oliver and Eleonore’s ministry to parents and the lgbt community over the years but it was considerable. Other parents got involved and took up the mantle when the Powells were no longer able to be in the lead. They retired to Pilgrim Place in Claremont, California continuing to be advocates there. They helped to start a lgbt-straight ally group at their church, First Congregational UCC in Claremont, and were active in the local PFLAG. Oliver died in 2003 at age 91. Eleonore continued to be active and supportive, and was loved by many. It was a joy for her when Bill Johnson moved to Pilgrim Place a few years before her death in 2015.
The importance of parents and straight allies cannot be underestimated, especially in the context of religion. The Powells gave of themselves to the lgbt movement just as they had to the Civil Rights and women’s movements, consistent in their belief that we are all beloved children of God. Much more can be said of each of these two incredible individuals, and of their partnership with each other, a marriage of equality long before the feminist movement that resurfaced in the 60’s. Let it be sufficient to say that they were deeply loved, and are deeply missed.
(This biographical statement provided by Loey Powell.)
Biography Date: May, 2016
United Church of Christ/Congregational Church | Johnson, William Reagan | Powell, Loey | Open and Affirming in the UCC (ONA & formerly UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns) | Ally
“Oliver Powell was the minister at First Congregational in Oak Park during our years at Oak Park River Forest High School. We remember well his firm handshake and warm greetings after Sunday services, as well as his inspirational sermons. He was a great community leader and supported the youth ministry, providing opportunities for young people in many ways. He and First Congregational helped us through some difficult high school years.”
– as remembered by David & John Kessler on July 1, 2020
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