The Rev. Neale A. Secor, 83, a former lawyer and retired Episcopal priest who served a parish in Harlem in the 1960s and 1970s, and later counseled visiting sailors through his work as head of the Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia, died Tuesday, Nov. 14, of respiratory failure at his home in Philadelphia.
Father Secor had battled chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) since 2007.
“In all, I have been fortunate to have lived a full and interesting life,” he wrote in 2009 for a college bulletin. “The intervening years have not been without error or trauma. And they haven’t always been lived conventionally or on the safe side. But they never have been dull. I have been a lucky fellow.”
For 18 years, Father Secor was a parish priest in West Harlem. He wanted a change, and found it in the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, where he worked from 1980 to 1984. Starting in June 1985, he became director of the Philadelphia seamen’s church at Third and Arch Streets.
“As luck and God would have it, I was introduced to the seamen’s ministry, something about which I was totally ignorant,” he told the Inquirer in May 1985. He quickly became a major force in the maritime ministry, said his son Jonathon.
Under his guidance, the church expanded its reach to more maritime terminals on both sides of the Delaware River and provided a broader range of services to seafarers than before, his son said. Services ranged from shopping tours, to drug and alcohol counseling, to legal advice.
He reminded the waterfront titans of their reliance on the sweat and muscle of longshoremen, truck drivers, seafarers, river pilots, and Coast Guard members. “Without them,” he liked to say, according to his son, “you don’t get diddly squat.”
Mesfin Ghebrewoldi, a former seafarer who was a ship visitor for Seamen’s Church Institute for more than 35 years, described Father Secor as compassionate, smart, and hardworking. “He cared about people, period,” Ghebrewoldi said.
When Father Secor retired from the seamen’s church in 1996, he kept the townhouse he owned in Old City and a small cabana on the north shore of the Dominican Republic’s Samana Peninsula, where he spent winters.
He chose the Caribbean nation, he told the Inquirer, because he wanted to learn about human interdependence. “Life here [in the United States] is losing its interconnectedness,” he said. “Life there is so hard that it requires that people talk to each other, help each other. It is a simpler, more vital culture.”
Born in Peekskill, N.Y., to Allen and Edith Secor, he graduated from Drew University in 1956 and the University of Chicago Law School in 1959. He earned a master of divinity degree at Union Theological Seminary in 1966 and was ordained a priest later that year.
Father Secor married Christine Dimock in 1956. Six years later, the couple moved from an upscale neighborhood in Cleveland to a walk-up apartment in West Harlem so he could study for the priesthood at Union Theological Seminary. While there, he participated in inner-city programs across the nation.
He did seminary field training at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Harlem, beginning in 1962, and was rector until 1980. While there, he campaigned for civil rights, gay and welfare rights, and the ordination of women priests. When the Rev. Emily Hewitt was ordained a priest in 1974, he acted as her sponsor and was present at the ordination ceremony in Philadelphia, according to the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.
His wife, from whom he was separated, died in 1988. In 2011, he married Ricardo Liriano, his partner of 30 years.
Even after the onset of illness in 2007, Father Secor enjoyed cultural events and performances in the city. He helped start a senior group at the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany in Philadelphia, where he was a member for 30 years.
Father Secor traveled widely with family. He hosted weeklong annual visits with each of his grandchildren – known as Grandpa Camp — and was an avid newspaper reader.
In addition to his husband and son, Father Secor is survived by another son, Thomas; and four grandchildren. A daughter, Wendy, died in childhood.
Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, at the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany, 330 S. 13th St. Burial is private.