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Watts Priest

BOB ABERNETHY (Anchor): We have a story today about a remarkable man in California.  He is a Catholic priest from Ireland who has ministered for 37 years to both African Americans and Latinos in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Saul Gonzalez reports.

SAUL GONZALEZ (Contributing Correspondent): The Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts has long been synonymous with inner-city desperation and despair. It’s the neighborhood that exploded in urban unrest, after all, in 1965, and then again during LA’s 1992 riots.

Today, Watts is still home to some of the meanest streets in the city, but they’re streets walked regularly by Father Peter Banks, a Catholic priest who, dressed in his robes, rope belt, and straw hat, looks like a fish very much out of water.

Born and raised in rural Ireland, Banks arrived as a young priest in Watts in 1973, assigned to the Saint Lawrence of Brindisi Church.

FATHER PETER BANKS: My picture of America before I came was Hollywood, Disneyland, and the beach. So I got into the car, we drove up Century and we crossed Vermont, and I began to realize this is a very different world. It was all black, and the very first Sunday I stood up on the altar and I said what am I doing here? How will I ever understand the people? Will they understand me?

GONZALEZ: In the decades since, though, this Irish priest and the people of Watts have come to know each other very well, and Father Banks has become a beloved figure both in his church and the wider community. Father Banks says his taking an active role in the day-to-day life of the community has been key to being accepted by the residents of Watts.

(Speaking to Father Banks): How important is it for you to do what we are doing now, to get out and to walk the streets?

FATHER BANKS: Oh, I feel part of the flesh and blood and soul of Watts.

GONZALEZ: As he walks through the community, Banks meets and ministers to the casualties of drugs, poverty, and violence in Watts. One of them goes by the name “Red Man.”

FATHER BANKS: Now, he never minds me saying this, but this man was shot thirteen times and survived.

RED MAN: I love this man. Really, he is the only white man who can walk Watts with no gun, just walking by faith, and walk here and know everybody. Everybody knows Father Peter. He is the true father of Watts. He is a real servant of God.

GONZALEZ: Red Man and a friend then ask Father Banks to lead them in an impromptu street corner prayer.

Central to the story of Watts and Father Banks’s church is the incredible demographic shift that has occurred in this community in recent years. Once synonymous with the African-American community, Watts is increasingly Latino. With that change has come tension.

FATHER BANKS: They call it the black and brown conflict. How do we get black and brown to come together?

GONZALEZ: That conflict sometimes expresses itself in violence, but often its face is a soft, unofficial form of segregation. Latinos largely stick to themselves, African Americans as well.

(Speaking to African American girl): You wouldn’t go out of your way to hang out with Hispanic kids?

AFRICAN-AMERICAN GIRL: Definitely no, I really wouldn’t because, I know it might sound racist, but if I see a Mexican girl or a Latino girl I’m just, like, not hanging out with her because she is just not my people. I know that’s wrong, but that’s just, like, the way it is in our society and our community.

GONZALEZ: It’s such feelings that Father Banks has tried to battle in Watts, making both African Americans and Latinos feel welcome in his congregation and breaking down walls of mutual suspicion and hostility. He’s done that by learning Spanish, slowly integrating some church services, and developing sensitivity to the problems of both Latinos and African Americans.

GONZALEZ: Father Banks says being Irish can actually be an advantage in his work in Watts.

FATHER BANKS: I feel it is. One time I was talking to the black kids, that’s when I came first, and they were saying something about the whites, and I held up my arm and said, “Look at me,” and this little girl said to me, “Father Peter, you aren’t white, you’re Irish.”

I can relate very much to the black in the sense of the Irish being persecuted. It used to say in the States, I think, “No black or Irish need apply.” So I feel I do identify a lot with the African-American people and their pain and their suffering. I’m able to relate to the Latinos and say I am an immigrant, and I tell the Latino people, I say, I am an immigrant, too. I came here and, I said, I am far away from my own land. I know what you go through, too.

GONZALEZ: Members of Father Banks’s congregation say they appreciate his efforts to build bridges of understanding between African Americans and Latinos.

MARIAN ANTUCHA (Latino parishioner speaking in Spanish with English translation): He helps all the people, African Americans, Latinos, the entire community. To us, Father Peter doesn’t recognize borders. He’s a person who helps everybody, and that’s why we’re here.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN PARISHIONER: If PR and public relationships, communications was a gift from God, poof, he got it ten times, you know, because he can get out there and talk to different people, and they just feel his love, and he will tell them to come here, and then they feel the love. It’s just a relationship that blossoms.

GONZALEZ: As he’s gotten older, Banks says he’s increasingly focused his ministry on the education and safety of Watts’ youngest, at the elementary and middle school operated by his church.

FATHER BANKS: They know more about pain than I do in my lifetime, and they are only six, seven, eight, nine years old. You saw them this morning there, dying for affection. If I don’t feel optimistic and I feel tired, I come over to the school. I get energy from the school, energy from these children.

Hope is to be able to sing in the middle of the darkness, and I think that’s what hope is for me. I can still sing in the middle of the darkness.

GONZALEZ: However, after serving the spiritual and material needs of this community for much of his adult life, Father Peter Banks will soon depart Watts. He’s been asked to take a job as a church recruiter in a rural area of California. Although he says he feels duty-bound to fill this position, Banks acknowledges he feels conflicted about leaving this community.

FATHER BANKS: That’s an emotional issue for me. It’s going to be a big struggle to leave here. It’s going to be—I’m at peace with God. That’s all I can say. I am at peace with God. I feel it is God’s will that I continue his work, and we need priests for the church and brothers and…

GONZALEZ: But it hurts?

FATHER BANKS: Oh, it hurts deeply. I have put so much of my life in here. I have invested so much in children. It is the biggest change of my life. I feel I am leaving home twice. I left Ireland 37 years ago, and I feel like I am leaving home again, too. But I’ve come to terms with it, and I know that I am doing it for a higher cause, a higher power.

GONZALEZ: The people whose lives Father Banks has touched in Watts hope his example will inspire others to continue his work of cultivating peace and understanding in a community that so needs them.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Saul Gonzalez in Los Angeles.

  • John Duffy

    Dear Editor
    Fr. Peter Banks ofm.cap. is a gift from God to the local Church in LA. Long may he minister there and thank you for a brief snap shot of his ministry. I am a friend and neighbour of Fr. Peter from the West of Ireland living in Dublin where I assist with Police Chaplaincy work.

  • Jessica Maes

    Father Banks is the kind of person that you want to be around all the time. He is positive and has something for everybody. So many miracles have occurred at St. Lawrence Brindisi Church. Everyone I talk to, has something positive to say regarding their first time visit with Father Peter.They feel special, they feel the presence of our Lord at St Lawrence Brindisi Church. I feel blessed to have known Father Peter over the last 3 1/2 years now. I will truly miss him.Father Peter has special gifts and talents, he is well aware that God expects him to use them for God’s Glory.There is a greater plan for him in God’s Holy Service, with work that may be more meaningful, purposeful and profitable for St Lawence Brindisi Church ,in the long run. God Bless Father Peter Banks.May Our Lord shut doors that need to be shut and open doors that need to be opened and may the Lord set Father Peters’s feet upon the straight and narrow road that leads to everlasting life. Amen. MAY FATHER PETER’S DAYS BE FILLED WITH INVIGORATION AND ZEST.WE WISH HIM WELL IN HIS NEW VENTURE AS RECRUITER FOR THE CAPUCHIN FRIARS IN SOLVANG CA.

  • Nancy Charles Rahim

    Father Peter is the most caring priest I have ever known. I feel blessed to have known him all the years he was at St. Lawrence Brindisi Church.

    Thank you for caring for my parents when they were alive.

  • Leno Villa

    Padre Pedro es un SANTO; para mi. Padre Pedro es un padre fenomenal. Padre Pedro siempre esta ahi para ayudar al necesitado. Lo vamos a extrañar mucho por todo lo que el hacia. Lo queremos, Leno, Maria, Giovy and Gigi.

    Father Peter is a SAINT; for me. Father Peter is a fenomenal priest. Father Peter is always there to help the needed. We’ll miss father Peter for all the things he did. We love you, father Peter, Leno, Maria, Giovy and Gigi.

  • pete meza jr

    Father PETER BANKS is indeed a very special priest to ST LAWRENCE. I have known him for at lease 35 years.I went to this parish as a kid back ahound 1957 also there school. I still fine time to come back as often as I can When i do came Father PETER makes me feel like i am back home. I alway feel safe here . thank you Father Peter . MAY THE LORD guide HIM . PETE MEZA JR RANCNO CUCAMONGA CA

  • JOHN V

    I don’t know Fr Peter but I am a Catholic in upstate NY and wish I met him. I wonder how will your community get on once he is not there. Will there be a vacuum or will they find some way to keep the good work he created going in the future. Good Luck to Fr Peter but God help your community find its way without his efforts around you.

  • Leonel Medina

    I cannot find the words to describe Fr. Peter. He is a gift from God to all us that know him. We have been attending the 7:30am Mass on Sundays almost nonstop for past 2 years because we love St Lawrence and we love Fr. Peter, Fr. Jesus, Fr. Jim, and Fr. Ed. Thank you Fr. Peter, and please let us keep Fr. Jesus in St. Lawrence forever.We will miss you Fr. Peter. From Leonel, Lizette, and Gabriela.

  • Judih and Jessica Loaiza

    Father Peter is a gift from God. God sent him to our lives and completly changed the way we used to live. We will always be grateful and keep him in our hearts.
    Thank you Father Peter for your blessings!

  • Barbara J. Stanton

    Father Peter has been a catalytic icon for diversity, faith, compassion, and temperence in the Watts community, Lynwood, Manhattan Beach and South Bay, and hundreds of communities who wanted to share the richness of brother/sisterhood. Your faith and belief in the Wattstar Theatre and Education Center has been my guiding light. Your impact is amazing!! God Bless. Barbara J. Stanton

  • Heidi Torres

    A truly servant of God. I had the pleasure of meeting this wonderful priest and working closely with him in St lawrence while assisting in the Youth Group. Father Peter always had a word of encouragement for everyone. His positive attitude and Gods love was transmitted by just hearing him speak so devoted about the God he Loves! I will never forget his favorite phrase… HAY FUEGO!!! and for us youngsters: WE NEED VOCATIONS, Pray for vocations. I learned a lot from him and Im really going to miss him. But I thank God for this apostle who taught me to be a strong youngster…. Love You Father!

  • norman jepp

    Father Peters Mother and my Mother were sisters, they would be so proud of him. Thank you for all you have done in Watts . God Bless, Norman Aldershot, England.

  • Christina Banks

    I am Fr. Peter’s sister Chris, I live in London. Im so proud of you Peter and can see how much you are loved by all your parishoners . You are an are inspiration to us all. To give is so inportant. God Bless you in your new venture. We as a family are very proud of you. Chris Banks xx

  • Myra McMorrow

    Hi Fr. Peter. My friends and I work with your brother Anthony in Sligo General Hospital. He is a character and loved by all. (nearly all of the time). We wish you all the best in your new venture. God Bless

  • Anthony Banks

    Hi Fr.Peter, this is Anthonio here. Never though I would be sending you messages on the net. You are the talk of country, a household name here in Sligo at the moment. Very proud of you, wishing you the best of luck, See you at Christmas.

  • Mary Reynolds

    Hi Father Peter, wishing you the best of luck in your new parish, I work with your brother Anthony in Sligo General Hospital, can you sing as good as him?

  • Annie Banks

    Hi Peter
    Your father would be so proud to have a son like you. Hope all goes well for you in your new venture. You are obviously highly thought of out there. You are looking fit and well. We as a family are all very proud of all you have achieved. Keep up the good work.

    Your sister Annie in Manchester

  • Sharon Hourican

    Hi Uncle Peter,
    It sounds like you are very highly thought of and deservingly so! I hope that all goes well with your new role and that you continue to prosper in your work. I know that the family are all very proud of you! Good luck for the future and God bless.

  • Annie Walsh

    Hi Peter my greatest kind friend your sister chrissy has all spoken so highly of you, yes you are through inspiration, shame the world has not got more people like you, as I read through the article tears of joy, sadness and hope. good luck in your new venuture and I know were chrissy gets her great personality, compassion and warmth from.

    Annie Walsh (nee mccartan)

  • May Banks

    Hi Peter, this is your older sister May here. Im so proud of you and all the great work you have done in Watts. I know it has been very much appreciated by all the lovely people there , All our family are so proud of you. Wishing you happiness in your new job. God Bless you always. See you soon I hope. May XX

  • Miriam Devaney

    Dear Fr Peter, Since the day I met you there has been a special bonding. I always look forward to your visit home, and the celebration of The Holy Mass at the Grotto, in Kellystown. You have a magic way of delivering God’s messages to us – “You are a breath of fresh air to me, and always make me feel special”. Miriam Devaney

  • Goretti Devaney

    Dear Fr Peter, It is wonderful to read all the wonderful comments which you deserve. I can never forgot all the kindness shown to us when we lost our parents. May god bless you and I wish you much happiness in your new job. Goretti Devaney (London)

  • Lori Dorame

    Dear. Fr. Peter, I first meet you and attended a funeral mass at St Larwence Brindisi for my uncle Tudy Dorame and I fell in love with the church and your words. I have since been there for my grandparents funeral and church masses. I leave so refreshed and full of the lord. Thank You everyone at St Lawrence from the Choir Uncle Ernie & Pete to Fr Jesus and all the lovely people that attend mass. Lori Dorame Yorba Linda, Ca

  • harry banks

    hi peter ive just seen your video and im very happy with what ive seen i think your blessed with luck i can well understand why you’d be lonesome leaving watts those people have great spirit with love and every good wish harry

  • Stephen Banks

    hi Peter,
    Congratulations on your great achievements. The video is amazing and inspiring. You have done some great work and it shows that the people of Watts are genuinely touched and appreciative of the understanding and caring way you have involved yourself wholeheartedly in their lives and struggles. Keep up the good work, and good luck in your new position. Stephen Banks, Canada. (little brother!)

  • Fr. Peter Banks

    My Dear Family and Friends,
    I am deeply moved by all the kind messages and greetings you put on the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly website. First, I give God thanks for 20 wonderful years in Watts. I thank my family; you are such a huge part of my life. God blest me with wonderful friends. You have become a part of the fabric of my being. Now God calls me to do something else and I joyfully do it. But, I will continue to help Watts and the children of Watts as long as I am able.
    God bless you all and I love you.
    Fr. Peter

  • Iggy Galvin

    Peter, you sure are a true son of Ireland Faith of our Fathers a true child of God in the footstep of our Holy Father Francis. Tears came to my eyes as I prayed with you during your journey in Watt’s Sligo and your family can be proud of you. We your brother Capuchins are. Molaidgh ga Deo la Dia May God always be praised. Iggy

  • Jim Healey (jimmy)

    THANK YOU ALLWAYS from ME here in WATTS CALIFORNIA over 30 years of love to us here in Watts

  • Philip Baxter, ofm.cap

    Peter, Good news takes time to travel to Africa – but it does get here! We rarely meet and that makes the joy of reading the story of your ministry in Watts and folks’ reaction to the story all the more joyful. I know you will continue to bring joy and peace wherever you are.
    Philip Baxter, ofmcap. Lusaka

  • Theresa Banks

    Hi Uncle Peter

    Great to pictures of you on website and looking so well.

    Take care of yourself

    Theresa XX

  • Tommy J. Luna

    My mother Hilda was the cook for the parish. Father Peter look real young he looked like an Alter Boy. Father Peter turned out to be a real man I am very pround to know him.

    Best Regards

    Tommy J. Luna
    USN Special Forces Star Team

  • Natasha Early

    wow what a great story. I attended St Lawrence from 1st -8th grade and graduated in 2003. i knew how great father Peter was and im sure stiil is. What a great video! Thank you Father Peter. Love Natasha Lee Early class of 2003! i learned so much from that amazing school. Thank You!