Keeping the flame alive Activist: Not the firebrand he was a generation ago, Vincent P. Quayle nevertheless remains a fighter for affordable housing.

September 16, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

When Vincent P. Quayle speaks, he could be the Irishman from Rockaway Beach, N.Y., the ex-priest from the Jesuit order or the resolute housing activist from the 1960s and 1970s.

Often all three at once.

While many of the 1960s revolutionaries have died, faded or retooled, Quayle is in his 28th year of championing low-cost housing for poor and middle class people. He has no thought of leaving his pioneering St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center.

"How can I?" asks Quayle. "My whole life has been a gift to me: my family, my church, my education. How could I stop trying to give back?"

Quayle concedes changes noticed by an acquaintance of 30 years, the Rev. Michael Roach. "His style has mellowed, and he's not as confrontational as years ago but he still lives the Jesuit spirit," says Roach. "He's a man for others."

The former priest takes seriously the Biblical admonition not to hide one's light under a bushel. Quayle's outspokenness in newspapers and public meetings can be seen as spunky advocacy or the sign of a large and unfettered ego.

Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew's Church in Manchester, calls Quayle "the ultimate New Yorker" with "the drive, the staying power" that entails. Others view it as pushiness.

At 56, Quayle looks back on overlapping experiences that began in Queens, where he and three siblings still return to visit their 91-year-old mother.

He was the Irish kid who got a Catholic education, spent 19 years in seminaries and the priesthood and left the Jesuits to become a family man.

He is the idealist who taught in Africa and learned community organizing under activist Saul Alinsky in Chicago.

With characteristic humor, he describes growing up in a warm Irish family with warm political connections.

"New York had a fire prevention essay contest every year. My two sisters won it, then I did. I was 10. They came by with a big car, picked up my mother and me. We went to Mayor [Vincent R.] Impellitteri's office and my picture was in the Daily News. It was all political. My uncle was the city fire commissioner."

As a senior at a Catholic high school, Quayle was motivated by a Jesuit seminarian's remarks to the class:

"I'll tell you your life the next 40 years," Quayle recalls the seminarian saying. "You'll have a nice wife, good home, three or four nice children, big cars. When you retire you will all wonder, 'What the hell did I do with my life?' If you're honest, you'll say you're miserable."

Quayle says, "I've never forgotten him. I don't want to look back at age 65 and say that."

He did pass up the route of another Catholic activist.

"Phil Berrigan asked me to join his movement when I was at

Woodstock Seminary here. I declined. I was afraid to go to jail; those folks had a kind of courage I didn't have. So I looked for another way to exercise my faith."

He found it by helping stabilize Baltimore neighborhoods through home ownership.

Since 1972, he said, St. Ambrose has helped rehabilitate 1,000 houses with "very few foreclosures of mortgages."

The agency also helped more than 4,000 families buy houses, advised 60,000 poor and middle-class families on buying or not buying, fought real estate agents who bought houses cheap from whites and sold them expensive to blacks, and attracted critics and loyal supporters.

St. Ambrose houses are mainly in Harwood and Barclay, north and south of St. Ambrose offices on 25th Street, and in East and West Baltimore.

The agency has seen other nonprofit affordable housing agencies spring up after its example.

Difficult passages

St. Ambrose has had uneasy times, like layoffs in the early 1980s and this year, cutting the racially balanced staff to 30. But the St. Ambrose board raised Quayle's salary this year from $55,000 to $65,000 and plans a 30th anniversary in two years. The work continues.

Sharon Dawson, a Good Samaritan Hospital worker, recently moved with her 14-year-old son, Taiwan, into a house on Barclay Street, the 999th house to be rehabbed by St. Ambrose.

"They helped me connect with the bank people and everyone else," said the first-time home buyer. "They stayed with me, step by step."

Quayle, the fretful optimist, sees continuing urban decline despite improvements such as banks lending more money for low-cost housing. "I'm devastated we haven't made more progress in housing, race relations, city life. When I started, I never anticipated the drug problem and the breakdown of the family."

Quayle confides a couple of regrets.

"After 28 years, we still struggle with finances," he said of the $4 million-a-year nonprofit group dependent on donations and his schmoozing with money sources.

"If I had to do it over again, I would have been kinder to the corporate community and politicians and brought a few on our board. It would have been a different organization. It might have had more financial security."

He also faults himself for not keeping track of "the 60,000 people who have walked in here" and whom St. Ambrose has tried to help.

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