NEW BRITAIN - Hugh Penney, a co-pastor emeritus of South Church who was instrumental in starting many of the city’s social service organizations, including the Friendship Service Center emergency shelter, died at his Cromwell home Sunday. He was 91.
Penney, who spoke at a recent event celebrating the Friendship Service Center’s 50th year, served at South Church for 27 years. During his tenure and afterward, he served the community by finding new ways to help people in need and promote other churches, said church and Friendship Center officials.
“It’s just amazing what he accomplished,” said South Church Lead Pastor Jane Rowe. “He had such a commitment to the community.”
Under Penney’s guidance, the Friendship Center was able to purchase a building for their first shelter in 1982, said the center’s executive director Ellen Perkins Simpson. “It was 1982 when the mental health hospitals were releasing people because they felt they would do better in the community,” Perkins Simpson recalled. “But they didn’t provide a place for them to live. Shelters began popping up all over the country.”
Penney went to see Archbishop John Whalen to secure a low-cost loan for a building at 516 Main St., she said. “Hugh decided we needed a shelter in New Britain and he was the force behind making it happen.”
The center now provides permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless individuals and families in addition to running an emergency shelter and a soup kitchen.
Penney was asked to speak on Oct. 15 as part of the kickoff celebration to the organization’s 50th anniversary. He told the crowd that, while the organization provides food and shelter, the Friendship Center provides something more. “We’re really more interested in helping people learn how to live a happy, full life,” he said.
As pastor of South Church from 1964 to 1991, Penney helped other churches and service organizations gain ground, Rowe said.
Penney supported the mission of the Prudence Crandall Center, which helps abuse victims get back on their feet, by providing space to start the organization, she said. He also welcomed Hispanic and black churches into South Church and started the annual Christmas dinner that now feeds hundreds.
“He was a big personality with a very positive outlook,” Rowe said. “Just a can-do kind of person, very persevering, setting his mind to something and getting it done.”
A memorial service will be held at the church Saturday at 10 a.m. Some of his ashes will also be buried there.
He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Lois Penney, four sons and their wives; a daughter; 13 grandchildren; six great-granddaughters and a seventh great-grandchild on the way; and his three sisters.
Penney had been the first president of the New Britain Human Resources Agency, president of the YMCA, president of the Erwin Home, which helps low-income women and president of the Senior Volunteer Program, and had served on city commissions and boards.
Penney was the HRA’s first chairman of the board, in 1967, officials said. At that time, Alton Brooks was a neighborhood worker at the HRA and remembers reporting to Penney monthly.
Brooks said Penney challenged everyone to be sincere about their efforts to develop the low-income neighborhoods. Penney was responsible for the beginning of the community action movement and for what it has become today, Brooks said.
“Reverend Penney stood up for those who didn’t have a voice,” Brooks said of Penney, a personal friend. “He thought of himself as pastor of the community.”
Staff writer Skyler Frazer contributed to this story.