At the annual Mardi Gras in May gala benefiting the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Los Angeles, Father Peter Banks is among the honorees. The priest, a member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, is being lauded at the May 20 event by the Catholic lay organization for his decades of work with the poor and disenfranchised. Born and raised in Sligo, Ireland, Banks is associate pastor at St. Lawrence of Brandish Catholic Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and works each summer with the children attending the Society's Circle V Ranch camp across from Cachuma Lake. Both environments are worlds away from the Santa Ynez Valley, where Banks is the beloved friar found saying Mass every Wednesday at Old Mission Santa Ines, and for the seniors at Atterdag Village and Friendship House.
Banks was newly ordained in Ireland in 1973 when he was assigned to St. Lawrence. "I went directly from Ireland to Watts, a place I'd never heard of. Our church sat on an island. There was devastation all around. It was a church without a city," Banks recalled. Although it was then eight years since the historic Watts Riot, little had been done to restore the neighborhood. "I went into the church the first night and was as lonely as hell. ... I've always envisioned hell as a lonely place ... but when I got up the next morning I had the answer. I just knew I had to love them. A woman said to me that first day, you'll be like the other priests and leave. I found my soul there. I connected. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned everything I know about the priesthood in Watts."
Some of what he learned was strictly cultural, like the fact that the traditional organ music being played at St. Lawrence did not connect with the black community. "I began to realize we needed gospel music, so we got a gospel choir started early on. We basically stole it from the Baptists," he said with a wry smile. "There was the old black woman who said to me one day, you're not doing enough. She told me I should be walking the streets and talking to people. So that's what I did. I started visiting houses, saying home Masses, and just connecting with people who approached me on the street."
Banks remained at the church for nine years, until he was transferred to his order's San Lorenzo Seminary where he was appointed director of novices. Located in Santa Ynez, San Lorenzo is the North American center for the training of Capuchin friars. In 1998 it was suggested he move from that job to be pastor of Old Mission Santa Ines. "I thought it would be a lovely idea. The Valley is a beautiful place and I'd learn to play golf. Then one night I took a walk under the stars and asked myself what my mother would want me to do. She'd want me to work with the poor. I felt that God was calling me back to Watts."
Banks knows first hand about being poor. One of 13 children, he grew up without electricity or running water. He had to walk the six miles round trip to church on Sundays. "Many times we didn't have shoes in the summer. We only had shoes in the winter. It made me hardy. I understand poverty." Although he's been in the United States for more than 40 years, Banks knows he sounds like he "just got off the boat," and uses it to his advantage. He recalls the time a young black girl in Watts said to him, "you're not white, you're Irish," as they talked about race.
Banks is deeply committed to the education of his St. Lawrence kids, now 80 percent Latino. "It's not like the Valley, where people grow up and want to stay here. All the children want to get out of Watts. I'm involved with getting money to help these children go to high school and college. We've had Watts kids graduate and go to Brown and Harvard. "The lighthouse in the middle of south Los Angeles is the grade school we have at the church."
Banks was called back to San Lorenzo in 2009 to handle recruitment of young men for the Capuchin order, an assignment he takes so seriously he confesses to feeling deflated when he recently lost one young man to the competing Jesuits. It was also in 2009 that he learned the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, whom he'd worked with extensively in Watts, was looking for a priest to go out to its Circle V Ranch camp, off Hwy. 154, during the summer sessions. He calls the camp "six days of heaven" for the children who get the opportunity to go there, taking them away from the often dismal circumstances of their everyday lives. "The children don't want to go home. They get so much love and care there." What he gives to them, he says, is the message that they'll "never be rejected by God," no matter what.
Banks praises the dedicated St. Vincent volunteers for what they do locally, not only at the camp but in the Valley as a whole. "They reach out to the most destitute," he said.
Although he's approaching his 70th birthday, Banks — "Father Peter" as he's known — has not begun to slow down. He spends Friday through Monday each week in Watts as associate pastor at St. Lawrence, and the remainder of the week at San Lorenzo and Old Mission Santa Ines. He walks so quickly and talks so fast it's often hard to keep up with him. It's not only part of his charm, but what helps him to accomplish as much as he does. He never did learn to play golf though. "No one plays golf in Watts," he said. Although his soul and his brogue are still very much Irish, Father Peter knows exactly where he'll end up when that day comes."I'm living a fascinating life, going from here to Watts," he said as we walk through the Mission gardens. "I love the Valley. It's been a great source of happiness for me, but I want to die among the poor. Of course I'll be buried at San Lorenzo, but my funeral will be in Watts. The people of Watts made me the priest that I am."
For more information on Society of St. Vincent de Paul visit www.svdpusa.org.