Forty years ago, Philius Nicolas began serving thousands of Haitian refugees at his Evangelical Crusade Christian Church, then located at 1488 New York Ave. Last Sunday, the site was rededicated to serve the needy once more — this time as the seven-story, 89-unit Bishop Philius and Helene Nicolas Senior Residence.
“We’ve been here to serve humankind without discrimination,” said Philius, 90, at the April 18 ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Our ministry isn’t only preaching the gospel, but our ministry is serving.”
Philius founded Evangelical Crusade, the East Flatbush church that led the senior housing development project, in 1973, eight years after immigrating from Haiti. Since then, he has led the church with Helene Nicolas, 88, his wife since 1956, by his side. Helene, who was instrumental in growing the church, now resides in a Hempstead, New York assisted living facility and was unavailable for interviews.
“She was always there as his eyes and his ears,” said her son Rev. Samuel Nicolas, senior pastor at Evangelical Crusade. “She wasn’t up front and inside the pulpit, but my mom was the person who would find talent [within the church] for my dad.”
After attending seminary in New York and serving as an assistant pastor, Philius founded Evangelical Crusade on the principles of liberation theology ‒ a Christian school of thought rooted in social concern for the poor.
It was in the mid-1960s, two decades before the ti legliz (little church) grassroots Christian movement helped overthrow the Duvalier dictatorship, that Philius himself was introduced to liberation theology, by a sociology professor in seminary.
He would take his concern for the poor and voiceless with him in ministry, providing shelter for immigrants, caring for children and standing up for victims of police brutality.
“Before we go to heaven, we need to go to school, we need to have housing to live, we need to face immigration problems, we need to face everything men are facing in this age,” said Philius, 90, of Uniondale, New York. “That’s why I embrace liberation theology.”
Growing the church, serving refugees
Evangelical Crusade changed locations multiple times in the 1970s, from Bedford Avenue in Crown Heights, then to a small storefront on Rogers Avenue, said Philius. In 1978 it moved to 1488 New York Ave.
Philius would soon leave his day job as an X-ray technician to serve full-time as a minister. But by the late 1970s, Philius already had more than a decade of experience preaching in Brooklyn.
And, he credited the connections he made throughout that decade for helping his congregation steadily attract new members in New York’s growing Haitian community.
“There was no other Haitian pastor who developed [liberation] theology, that’s why I attracted many people,” he said.
Before moving to its current site at 557 E. 31st St. in 1985, the Evangelical Crusade congregation would live up to its theological mission of uplifting the poor.
As the 1980s dawned, more and more Haitian immigrants were arriving by boat, fleeing political violence with little more than the shirts on their backs. Most were detained and subject to deportation, per federal policy.
But political pressure from Philius and other community leaders like Dr. Jean-Claude Compas convinced immigration authorities to release some refugees into the care of the church, they said.
Philius took in his first 35 refugees in 1980 and provided housing and resettlement services for 3,000 in all. Caring for the refugees was a family affair, Philius said, with his children teaching them English-language skills. The church would also help them find employment, family members to live with or permanent housing.
Later, when Evangelical Crusade opened a day care center at the site, Philius said his children would wake up early to receive the children, before leaving for school.
In addition to advocating for the rights of refugees, Helene was instrumental in their care.
“I was living in Brooklyn on Farragut Road, one block away from the church,” said Philius. “She used to cook, and they would go to my house to eat, by groups of ten.”
The Nicolas family could hardly do the work on their own. Compas, now a retired physician, would accompany Philius to meetings with prospective donors, many of them nonprofits in Manhattan. Organizations like Church World Service would later fund Evangelical Crusade’s efforts to house refugees.
Compas characterized his long-time friend as a calm, astute leader who made a lasting impact on the Haitian community and its integration into American society.
“He was able to bridge the gap between our young immigrant community and the mainstream organizations in this country,” Compas said, of Philius. “He has always been a pioneer.”
As the needs of the community shifted, Philius maintained his presence as a leader.
When his nephew Abner Louima was beaten and sodomized by New York City police in 1997, Philius helped coordinate the community response.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who co-founded the organization 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, worked closely with Philius and Samuel Nicolas, planning marches and protests at the church on East 31st Street.
Adams said he remembers “spending many days in that basement organizing with them and other leaders, as we protested for justice for Abner Louima.”
Honoring their names ‘for generations to come’
The 2,000-member church Philius founded is now rising to meet another need, becoming the first Haitian-led congregation in New York to build a housing development that houses seniors.
Daniel Ossina, an Evangelical Crusade congregation member, recalled the moment 18 years ago, when the church first started the process of building affordable housing. The April 18 ribbon-cutting was a sweet moment for the entire church community, he said at the event.
“By the grace of god, 15 years from now, me [and] the next generation of this church intends to manage this property to continue its mission in changing the lives of others and benefiting the community,” Ossina said.
Church leaders received approval for the idea in 2008, because elders were “falling through the cracks,” Samuel Nicolas said, often unable to afford the rising cost of housing.
After selling the land at 1488 New York Ave. in 2017, Evangelical Crusade reinvested $1.9 million back into the housing development, enlisting Brisa Builders to construct the building and Rodney Leon Architects to design it.
The $45 million, 89-unit building received public and private financing, The Haitian Times has reported. Tenants, none of whom will pay more than 30% of their income in rent, will also have a community center and common room in the building.
“I feel grateful,” Philius said of his eldest son, who conceived of the building and its name. “I also thank God for giving me a son that embraces my theology, embraces my legacy.”
The names of Philius and Helene Nicolas are now immortalized, the building that bears their name providing affordable living for generations of senior citizens.
“If I do nothing else in my life, I will know this is done,” Samuel said. “That their name for generations and generations to come will be honored, for the work they did for our church and for the work they did at that corner.”