Msgr. John Rowan, of Central Islip, died April 1. Known as...

Msgr. John Rowan, of Central Islip, died April 1. Known as "Father John," he helped found Mercy Haven and was the founding principal of Holy Family Diocesan High School, now St. Anthony's. Credit: Maria Rosario Rowan

Msgr. John Rowan, of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, devoted his life to the service of helping those less fortunate. Calling him progressive “wouldn’t be progressive enough!” said his younger brother Michael Rowan, of Bohemia. Seeing inequality and intolerance “makes me angry," Michael Rowan added. "But it made him determined."

John Rowan, who lived in Islip, died April 1. He was 88.

"God said, 'Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,' " said Michael Rowan, quoting the Gospel of Matthew. "And He named them: the poor, the disabled, the incapacitated, the hated, the victims of our society. Today, with inequality, we have more and more of those people. John looked at that as a moral problem that has to be dealt with."

And take action he did. In 1985, "Father John," as he was known, helped found Mercy Haven, an Islip Terrace nonsectarian nonprofit providing housing, advocacy and education to the homeless and the mentally ill. He held Sunday Masses in Fire Island Pines for the gay and lesbian community. While board chairman of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, he oversaw the appointment in 1999 of the agency's first woman executive director. Twenty years earlier, after receiving a law degree from St. John's University, he became a member of the New York State Bar, and through Nassau Suffolk Law Services practiced pro bono for those in need.

"He would see people looking for help," remembered Sister Pat Griffith, executive director of Mercy Haven and a friend since the 1970s, "and he would say, 'Well, they really need an advocate and there needs to be systemic change.' "

John Joseph Rowan, who died at his home in Central Islip following a lingering blood disorder, was born March 3, 1936, in Brooklyn. The second of eventually four sons born to Wall Street stockbroker Joseph Rowan and teacher Dorothy Harding Rowan, he was raised from childhood on Long Island. He graduated from Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn, living with his grandparents while attending there.

Rowan was ordained into the priesthood in 1961 upon receiving his doctorate in theology from the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, in Huntington, now a retreat and conference center. Five years later, he became founding principal of Holy Family Diocesan High School, now St. Anthony's, in South Huntington.

"[E]ven the most jaded, authority-hating or religion-hating person never had a bad word to say about Father Rowan," wrote Ed Tracey, class of 1974, in a 2012 essay about him, adding, "[H]ow could you dislike a principal who brought in an Irish setter to school?" — a detail Griffith confirmed with equal fondness.

Leaving as principal in 1974, Rowan was assigned to St. Patrick's, in Bay Shore, where he and Griffith founded the church's soup kitchen. He then went on to serve 24 years at the Church of St. Lawrence the Martyr, in Sayville, retiring in 2008.

The honorary title of monsignor, bestowed to him by the church in the early to mid-1990s, "didn't mean anything to him," said Griffith. "And he told that to people immediately: 'The title doesn't speak to the relationship I have as father, so I'd like to be called father.' "

Rowan, who also held a doctorate in education from The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., served on numerous board and trustee positions at Catholic institutions, including hospitals. In retirement, he helped raise funds for a school in an impoverished part of the Dominican Republic, enjoyed hobbies including gardening and served as a weekend pastor at St. Frances de Chantal, in Wantagh.

Rowan was predeceased by an older brother, Thomas, and is survived by his younger brothers, Terry, of Santa Rosa, California, and Michael; as well as 15 nieces and nephews.

A requiem Mass was held at St. Lawrence the Martyr on Wednesday and a memorial Mass is set for April 20 at St. Frances de Chantal. Donations may be made in Rowan's name to either Mercy Haven or to the Dominican Republic's Fe y Alegria School c/o St. Paul the Apostle Church, Brookville.

From new rides at Adventureland to Long Island's best seafood restaurants to must-see summer concerts, here's your inside look at Newsday's summer Fun Book. Credit: Newsday Staff

Elisa DiStefano kick-starts summer with the Fun Book show From new rides at Adventureland to Long Island's best seafood restaurants to must-see summer concerts, here's your inside look at Newsday's summer Fun Book.

From new rides at Adventureland to Long Island's best seafood restaurants to must-see summer concerts, here's your inside look at Newsday's summer Fun Book. Credit: Newsday Staff

Elisa DiStefano kick-starts summer with the Fun Book show From new rides at Adventureland to Long Island's best seafood restaurants to must-see summer concerts, here's your inside look at Newsday's summer Fun Book.

Latest Videos

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME