The Legacy of Father Peter Young Jr.
An Extraordinary Life
SAIR owes a significant debt of gratitude to Peter Young Jr. for helping to inspire the formation of our group through the example he set as a tireless advocate for the poor, racial minorities, the incarcerated and especially for those struggling with alcohol and drugs. Throughout his 90 years of life, Father Young’s message of how people can use their experience, strength and hope to bring about positive change in others’ lives parallels SAIR’s mission of using a HUG – Hope, Understanding and Guidance – to aid others. Our admiration for Father Young was only strengthened through the close personal ties he had with SAIR founder Greg Spencer and members of the Spencer family.
Father Young’s death on Dec. 9, 2020, brought a close to a 60-year ministry that was remarkable for both the numbers of lives it aided and enriched and for his ability to motivate others to volunteer their time, their money and their sympathies for those in need. As Father Young frequently explained, his need to help others was inspired by a desire to put the Beatitudes into action as well as to meet the obligation to do good deeds he believed he accepted when he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest.
Peter Young’s high energy level, persistence and will to succeed were traits he brought with him into his ministry and carried with him throughout his life.
The Albany, N.Y., native was a standout baseball player at Christian Brothers Academy and then at Siena College, where he was also a campus government leader and a popular student. He credited the captain on the destroyer escort he was assigned to in the U.S. Navy after graduation from Siena with convincing him that his calling was to a religious career rather than as a banker or in some other position in business he had imagined for himself. Young said the captain came to that conclusion after seeing him bloodied from fistfights with his own shipmates as he tried to prevent them from harassing or physically assaulting women during shore leaves in Caribbean ports. Signing up at the captain’s insistence for chaplain’s duty in the Navy naturally led to his training as a Catholic priest after his discharge, he said.
Following his ordination in 1959, Father Young spent 18 years as pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in the impoverished and crime-ridden South End of Albany. He also spent many of those years as a teacher and athletic director at Cardinal McCloskey High School in Albany and was active in community groups, sports and recreational activities and civil rights causes. He was the founder of Albany County’s Big Brothers and Big Sisters programs, to name just two of the scores of organizations he took leading roles in in the 1960s and 1970s.
It was at St. John’s that Father Young said he had to confront the reality of poverty, racial inequality and the problems of alcohol and drug addiction that plagued his neighborhood. He likened the area to a “combat zone” or a “skid row." For many years he opened the parish gymnasium nightly as a shelter for the homeless who gravitated to its rough streets. Some nights, more than 100 people slept on cots in the St. John’s gym.
Also starting with his ministry at St. John’s, Father Young said he discovered the kind of support that alcoholics need to confront their addictions and to rebuild their lives. Though not an alcoholic himself, he frequently attended “open” AA meetings, where both alcoholics and non-alcoholics are welcome, to better learn about how the program works. He relied on two Albany lawyers in recovery, Frank Gavin and John Devine, in particular, to educate him about alcoholism. He also learned about how negative attitudes toward alcoholics among non-alcoholics and policymakers prevented many people from seeking treatment for fear of being stigmatized or penalized. Father Young freely admitted throughout the rest of his life that he relied on troubled people – alcoholics, drug addicts, incarcerated men and women, the poor – to teach him what they needed most so they can be helped the best. “I am most familiar with experience, strength and hope,” he said, adopting a phrase familiar to AA members. “You take the experience of the person who has been wounded. You give them the opportunity of working with someone who needs it. And you’ve got a winning combination.”
Father Young became renowned as Albany’s “street priest” who would trek to Albany police court many mornings to have judges release those picked up the previous night into his custody rather than being sent to jail for weeks or months on public drunkenness sentences. The priest would then try to find them a meal, an AA meeting, a slot in one of the few treatment centers in that era or a safe place to stay. Another young Catholic priest in the 1960s who served in Albany’s South End, Howard Hubbard, said it was not unusual for Father Young to personally drive an alcoholic as far away as Utica to get them into treatment at a time when hospitals routinely denied admission to intoxicated alcoholics because they offered no treatment for their conditions.
His empathy toward alcoholics and embrace of AA as the best program available for their long-term recovery gave Father Young access to some of the pioneers of the AA movement. He met AA founder Bill Wilson and observed first-hand the alcoholism recovery center known as Rosary Hall that was established by Sister Mary Ignatia at St. Vincent Charity Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.
Father Young said one conclusion he came to was the desperate need for medical treatment for alcoholics in Albany in the 1960s. Sleeping off their benders in drunk tanks, as many chronic alcoholics typically endured, not only did not represent treatment in a medical sense but is now recognized as a dangerous means of detoxification that exposes alcoholics to the risk of death from acute alcohol withdrawal. Prompted by the death of a chronic alcoholic in his rectory, Father Young worked to open the Albany region’s first safe sobering-up stations in conjunction with the Albany Medical Center and St. Peter’s Hospital. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Albany Citizens Council on Alcoholism (ACCA, now the Addictions Care Center of Albany) in 1966 and of St. Peter’s Alcoholism Rehabilitation Center (SPARC) in 1970. Both institutions are still mainstays of the addictions care network in the region.
Another consequence of Father Young’s experience with alcoholics was his realization that the people most of society regarded as “bums” or “jerks” or “losers” were, in fact, suffering from the disease of addiction. The compulsive need to feed their addictions accounted for their destructive behavior toward themselves, their families and their inability to maintain a job or a safe home. With the proper medical treatment and support, such as safe housing and job training, the lives of many of them could be turned around, the priest discovered.
Convinced that alcoholics and addicts were sick, not sinful, Father Young became a leading advocate for the decriminalization of public intoxication in New York state. Though medical authorities and criminal justice officials had argued for years that addictions were driven by a brain disease – the American Medical Association first officially declared alcoholism an illness in 1956 – it took longer for the law to reflect the evolving attitudes toward chronic alcohol and drug use. With his parish situated less than three miles away from the statehouse in Albany, Father Young became a familiar sight around the Capitol, arguing before Govs. Nelson Rockefeller and Malcolm Wilson and state legislators for repeal of Section 240 of the state Penal Code. That statute prescribed escalating punishments for public intoxication, starting at 15 days for first offenders and growing to six months in jail for habitual offenders.
Young said it took more than a decade of lobbying by himself and others at the Capitol and “30,000 meetings” with legislators and state officials before public drunkenness was officially decriminalized beginning Jan. 1, 1976. Just as tough, Father Young said, was the subsequent fight to secure government funding to support local medical facilities where people could safely detox from alcohol and drugs and receive treatment since the police and the jails would no longer be primarily handling the problem. Father Young became president of the New York State Association of Councils of Alcoholism in 1975 to help promote the creation of better treatment at the community level for those suffering from addictions. “We did succeed in the Penal Code, in the idea of decriminalization,” Father Young said many years later. “I often refer to it as ‘destigmatization’ because it finally became what it is now. It is [now regarded as] an illness, a disease and therefore because of that, we’re getting treatment. It’s treatable and beatable.”
In 1977, Father Young transferred as pastor from St. John the Baptist to Blessed Sacrament Church in Bolton Landing, about 70 miles north of Albany. He also became senior chaplain at the nearby Mount McGregor Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison.
Two significant things resulted from Father Young’s tenure at Bolton Landing and Mount McGregor:
_He helped establish the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Training (ASAT) program to provide drug and alcohol counseling to inmates prior to their release back into communities. Father Young said it was obvious to him that most inmates had dependencies on drugs or alcohol. Surveys consistently show the vast majority of prison inmates in New York and other states have clinically recognized addiction problems, or that they committed the crimes that landed them behind bars while high on drugs or while drunk. Father Young believed that tens of thousands of inmates ultimately had access to drug and alcohol treatment while in New York state prisons thanks to ASAT.
_“PYHIT” was created. Father Young would dedicate much of the rest of his life to Peter Young Housing, Industries and Treatment. Under PYHIT and its related entities, Father Young built a network of temporary residences, job-training centers and treatment facilities designed to aid former inmates as they transitioned from prison to civilian life. The idea was to provide practical assistance to ex-prisoners to help them become productive, tax-paying members of society. Past that, Father Young said by treating offenders with respect, he wanted to create hope among inmates that they could become healthy, productive members of society who could, in turn, teach others how to also fit into society without crime, drugs or alcohol. “Every time I’d talk to a guy coming out of prison I’d ask, ’What do you need?’” he recalled late in life. Inmates would respond, “’I need a place to stay, I need some kind of treatment for whatever the kind of problem you think I have, and I need a job.’ So I said, ‘So you need three things: Treatment, housing and employment.’ And that’s where it came from. I didn’t come up with it. They gave it to me.” Putting it another way, Father Young remembered inmates who were about to be released from prison saying to him, “I’m all dressed up, with no place to go.” At its height, PYHIT provided housing and services to thousands of people a day in facilities from Brooklyn to Buffalo.
Despite all the praise, civic awards and other accolades he earned, Father Young’s final years were clouded by a state investigation of malfeasance within his charitable organizations. He was not personally implicated, but managers he had installed in some posts faced charges related to the misappropriation of funds and other illegalities. The turmoil caused the state to force the transfer of some PYHIT facilities to other providers, the defunding of other PYHIT programs and Father Young himself to have to disassociate himself from entities he had nurtured since the 1980s.
Still, in a Zoom call with SAIR founder Greg Spencer just a few weeks before his death, Father Young retained his life-long optimism about people and belief in the basic kindness and generosity of human beings. He thought that his original inspiration for helping others – the Beatitudes – had every bit as much relevance in the Covid-scarred world of 2020 as it did in 1960, when he was a young priest. He talked of working with SAIR to inspire volunteerism and to return to the essence of his early work, which meant experiencing the satisfaction of helping a “fallen man” to get back on his feet.
As Father Young put it a few weeks before his death, “The last speech that Martin Luther King gave, they said, ‘Why did you do this?’ and he said, ‘It is my duty.’ I do feel that you’re ordained, you’re ordained to be able to help other people. So you feel a sense of duty to do the right thing and help wherever and however that you can.”
Father Peter Young and the Spencer Family
The connection between Father Young and the Spencer family perfectly illustrates the principle of the “ripple effect” in action. Through his support and encouragement, Father Young helped two generations of Greg Spencer’s family to live happier, healthier and more productive lives. The Spencers, in turn, allowed Father Young to understand the disease of alcoholism better, and they came to work side-by-side with him to help others reclaim their lives from addictions. Among Father Young’s mottos was “Reach One, Teach One,” which meant that once he had enriched a person’s life, often by steering them into recovery from addictions, they could, in turn, use their experience, strength and hope to make others’ lives better, too. It is the same principle that Father Young learned from his study of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, of building a community of mutual aid and support that benefits all people in need.
Let’s start from the beginning of the Young-Spencer family relationship.
Joan began her journey in recovery from alcoholism in 1953. She was the 40-year-old mother of four children and the wife of another alcoholic, Fred Spencer.
After going to a “rest home” for 30 days to “dry out” (there were no treatment programs dedicated to alcoholism yet in the Albany, N.Y., area) she returned to Albany and started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She was one of the first women in the Capital District in AA, which was a mostly male fellowship in the 1950s. Her personal program of recovery was reaching out to help those in need, daily prayer and saying the Rosary. “Joannie” carried a never-ending message of hope and faith. She was a beloved role model and a great illustration that AA worked and recovery was possible. Her favorite saying was, “Bring the body and the mind will follow.”
Joan was honored by the Albany Citizens Council on Alcoholism in 1993 for “her many years of dedication and countless contributions to those in recovery.” Like her sister Georgea and her husband Fred, she was a high school dropout. But all three found a new life in recovery. She was always willing to give a HUG -- Hope, Understanding and Guidance -- to those in need. She died on July 12, 1993, with 40 years in recovery.
Joan Spencer's connection to Father Young started shortly after his ordination in 1959. Many of those in the Albany neighborhood surrounding his first parish, St. John the Baptist, were homeless alcoholics and addicts. As he attended open AA meetings to learn more about recovery the AA way, he was welcomed by Joan and other members, including public defense lawyers John Devine and Frank Gavin. Both Devine and Gavin came to regularly represent Father Young's “street people” in court on charges of public intoxication or other minor offenses. Father Young also reached out to Joan Spencer and another AA regular -- her sister Georgea – to quiz them about how substance abuse affected women. Father Young asked them to share their experience, strength and hope so he could better grasp a woman's needs in recovery.
As Father Young began initiating programs to educate and help those in need due to substance abuse, a number of recovering people from AA volunteered to help him. Joan and Georgea were regular participants in helping Father Young as his outreach efforts gained steam.
Joan’s younger sister, Georgea, was also an alcoholic. In 1958, five years after Joan stopped drinking, she was joined in recovery by Georgea. Both were regular attendees of AA meetings, where they, Devine, Gavine and a handful of others in recovery formed the first core group of volunteers that Father Young recruited to help alcoholics and drug addicts in the 1960s and 1970s.
Georgea was a born leader. When she went to Father Young and offered to set up a woman's support group at St. John’s, he quickly approved. This started her on her new mission in life. Georgea would become one of the first female credentialed substance abuse counselors in New York state, though Georgea continued to volunteer for some of Father Young's outreach programs.
In 1970, she was hired as a clinician at the SPARC treatment program recently established by Father Young in Albany. Georgea’s brother-in-law Fred Spencer – Joannie Spencer’s husband – was SPARC’s first director. After a decade at SPARC, Georgea was hired part-time by a newly formed outpatient clinic -- Clinical Services and Consultation – in Latham, where she did mostly group counseling until retiring in 1993. She was a legend in AA and recovery circles who was loved and respected by her clients and peers.
Georgea was honored numerous times for her contributions professionally just as sister Joan was recognized for her volunteerism “behind the scenes” with Father Young's programs. Among the honors that Georgea received was the Margaret McPike Award for “outstanding contributions to the alcoholism field” in 1982. In 1987, the first halfway house for women in recovery in upstate New York was named the Georgea S. Perrin House for Women in her honor. It is still an outstanding resource in Schenectady today. Before leaving Clinical Services, Georgea arranged an interview for her nephew Greg Spencer, who was just starting his new career as an addictions counselor. Greg was hired and the family legacy of reaching out to give back to those in need continued.
Georgea died on Nov. 11, 1999, with 41 years of sobriety. Her message to others in recovery was, “Where would I be without you? Where would I be without you?”
In 1965, Joan's husband Fred Spencer stopped drinking and was encouraged to attend AA meetings by Devine and Gavin, two of his former drinking buddies. There, Fred became reacquainted with Father Young, whom he knew from Twi-Light League baseball and other sports competitions.
Father Young secured the first grant ever from Albany County for an addictions recovery program and on the recommendation of Gavin and Devine, he hired Fred Spencer to run the new program in 1966. Thus was born the Albany Citizens Council on Alcoholism (now the Addictions Care Center of Albany). With ACCA established after a few years, Father Young and Fred saw another area that needed to be addressed in the Capital District, detoxification services and professional counseling. In 1970, the new program – called St. Peter's Alcoholism Rehabilitation Center (SPARC) – was established on the seventh floor of St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany. Today, SPARC is the largest addiction care provider in the area with several treatment locations and a 40-bed inpatient facility.
Fred was also SPARC’s first director. Once established, it was decided that someone with professional treatment credentials should head up SPARC. Fred gladly stepped aside and took over as Public Service Outreach Coordinator until his retirement in 1979. It was in that capacity he did what he liked most, educating people that alcoholism is a treatable disease and not a moral failing. He conducted groups in the SPARC outpatient program along with Georgea and also appeared on local radio and television talk shows to discuss alcohol and drug addiction and recovery.
Fred, who became sober at the age of 53, was a living example of how one could find recovery, a meaningful way of life by helping others and leave a legacy by sharing his Hope, Understanding and Guidance -- HUG -- with those in need. The opportunity to work with Father Young was the turning point in his life. He passed away in 1981 with 16 years in recovery.
In October 1999, the outpatient clinic at ACCA was dedicated to the Spencer family “in grateful recognition for their many years of dedicated service to those who suffer from addiction.”
Greg Spencer is the son of Fred and Joan Spencer, who both struggled with alcoholism as Greg was growing up in Albany. Greg had his first drink in 1958 right after turning 18. He had avoided alcohol up to that time because of the problems that it had caused in his family and his home. The first night that he drank (due to peer pressure) he found that the effect was fantastic. The world “went to technicolor,” as he often described it later in his life. This started him on a 25-year journey of alcoholic drinking. When the time came to stop, it was at his first AA meeting that he experienced a ray of Hope that he might be able to stop and didn't have to try and live soberly alone. It was February 8, 1984, and he hasn't had a drink since. (See Greg describe the crucial 12 hours that set him on his course of long-term sobriety in a YouTube video "The Day I Got Sober.")
Greg immediately started working a program of recovery and found that helping others gave him a great sense of self-worth. The damage done by his drinking had caused a fractured marriage and an amicable divorce that was finalized in 1989. By that time, Greg had decided to leave a career in sales in Vermont and return to the Albany area to start a new life as an addictions counselor.
In early 1990, he was hired as a counselor at Clinical Services and Consultation. It was the start of his new life. During his 10 years there, Greg developed some unique clinical programs and made connections in the addictions field -- many outside of Clinical Services. One of his early contacts was Father Young, who had been instrumental in helping his father Fred and aunt Georgea make their life changes and enter the addictions field as professionals. Greg, representing the next generation of the Spencer family, would now start a whole new relationship with Father Young that would last for the next 20 years.
One project Greg and Father Young worked on together was “Road to Recovery,” a state program that helped inmates who had just been released from prison transition back into society. Father Young was awarded a grant to oversee the program and he brought Greg on board to help him direct the program. This was Greg’s first job working under the umbrella of Father Young’s group, Peter Young Housing, Industries and Treatment (PYHIT) as a consultant. Greg moved on to other consulting jobs with several state-licensed providers and Albany County. Father Young would also ask Greg periodically to informally talk to family members or friends of people struggling with addiction. Greg also had a one-year contract with Father Young to help set up a satellite PYHIT treatment location in Saratoga County.
Shortly afterward, the state investigation into the alleged misappropriation of funds by some PYHIT employees began to impede the flow of public funding to PYHIT operations and caused Father Young's organizations to struggle to stay afloat financially. Father Young was ultimately forced to give up control of his operations. Greg, SAIR board chairman Joel Stashenko and Father Young met on several occasions starting in the mid 2010s to discuss ideas for joint ventures and Father Young expressed interest in being involved with SAIR. In July 2020, Father Young contacted Greg and said he was ready to renew discussions about how we might work together on our SAIR outreach in the prevention and intervention areas. It was decided that we should record a conversation on ZOOM to discuss how best to reach back and use education and volunteers to carry Father Young’s message of offering experience, strength and hope to those in need. At the same time, we can share a SAIR HUG – Hope, Understanding and Guidance -- to motivate necessary changes that need to be made.
Father Young died on Dec. 9, 2020, about seven weeks after the Zoom call between Greg and Father Young was recorded (Fr. Peter Young Jr.: A Legacy Lives On - YouTube). We at SAIR regard this discussion as one of Father Young’s final gifts in a lifetime of giving to others. It is never to be forgotten.
(Photos courtesy of the Spencer and Young families.)
(More information about the Spencer-Perrin families is contained in Akum Norder’s book “The History of Here: A House, the Pine Hills Neighborhood, and the City of Albany.” It was published by the State University of New York Press, Albany, N.Y., 2018.)