Priest Faces Up to Drug Dealers, With Prayer and a Petition

The New York:

The threatening letter opened with a misspelling, a common fault of the genre.

“Father Bonaface,” it read, addressing the Rev. Boniface Ramsey, pastor of the Roman Catholic St. Joseph’s Church Yorkville.

“Be careful when you report, people selling drugs on 87th St.”

It’s not every decade that you run across members of the clergy getting into squabbles with people hanging out on street corners on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

The neighborhood around St. Joseph’s, on 87th Street between First and York Avenues, is one of the dwindling pockets of Manhattan that manage to have, in a single block, an Everything $1 and Up store with a display of sponge mops, and a VinoVersity, an “educational wine store,” with regular course offerings and tips on subjects like the best bottles to wash down a platter of chicken wings (in a word, fruity).

On the side streets are five-story walk-ups with tenants who have been residents since the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, and on the avenues, 25-story buildings with gyms used by renters who arrived in time for this summer’s internships on Wall Street.

At the 8 a.m. Mass on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, Father Boniface noticed a man slumped over in a back pew at St. Joseph’s, a parish planted in the 19th century.

“I said to him, ‘Kevin, you’re using drugs, who is selling them to you?’ ” Father Boniface said in an interview. “He got to his feet, mumbled, ‘Father, Father,’ and walked out. There was a filthy needle on the bench.”

That drove the priest to compose a letter to the commander of the 19th Police Precinct, citing a group of people who loitered on the corner of First Avenue and 87th Street.

“We are dismayed that the children who attend our school can see the same things that adults can, including public urination and defecation, indecent exposure, prostitution, and extreme drunken and drug addicted behavior,” he wrote.

So, tucked into the weekly bulletin alongside announcements of the sick to be remembered in prayers, the last choir performance before summer, a collection for a mission in Africa, and meetings of the Brownies, Alcoholics Anonymous and the rosary prayer group, was the text of his letter about drug dealing and prostitution.

The actual document was left in the back of the church, not far from where the priest had found the sleeping man and his used needle. Within a few days, 700 people had signed on. These were pen and paper signatures: no online clicking to plump up the numbers. (“I don’t know how to e-mail,” Father Boniface, 67, mentioned in passing.)

A few doors down from the church, Avi Keller, who runs a computer repair shop, said he could understand why the people on the corner were viewed as a nuisance. Still, he said, the druggies were less of a problem for him “than people who come out of the bars and are puking in my doorstep.”

Some days, he said, he has handed out a few dollars to the people on the corner; other times, he shoves past.

“I get pretty rude with them, ‘Get out of my way,’ and they drop back, they don’t provoke anything else,” Mr. Keller said. “I’ve never seen them commit violence against anyone, and I’ve never seen any drug dealing. I don’t think I can judge anyone.”

Presented with the letter, the police responded, Father Boniface said. “We went to the precinct last week, and we were treated very well,” he said. That was on Monday.

On Tuesday, he found two almost identical pieces of mail, handwritten on paper torn from a notebook. One complained about his treatment of homeless people. The other mentioned his campaign about drug use on the corner, and had a menacing tone.

“Watch your back! You have to walk outside — you know. Do you think that your all that holy?”

Father Boniface passed along copies of the letter to the police, and also read it out to the congregation during the Masses on Sunday.

On Monday and Tuesday, the corner was largely cleared of the usual hangers-on. A police van was parked there, and a young officer in a powder-blue polo shirt said he knew all about the contention. “We’re on it, 24 hours a day,” the young officer said.

At Father Boniface’s last parish, St. Vincent Ferrer’s, the main criminal element was Bernard Madoff, who lived nearby, he said.

The threatening letter was not the work of a criminal mastermind, Father Boniface said: “The guy left his DNA all over the envelope.”

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