ON THIS cold spring morning, an Episcopal priest greets the scruffiest residents of New York's Park Avenue. He is a husky, jovial man with wavy black hair, a boyish face and Virginia drawl. And he watches the men rouse themselves in a shiver from cardboard box shelters on the steps of a towering bank building here--Cardboard Box, U.S.A., as one derelict calls home--and trundle across East 51st Street for a free breakfast at St. Bartholomew's Church, a church caught in a crossfire over its desire to develop its property in a ministry for the city's poor.

There is a three-tour Vietnam veteran who tries to panhandle the priest for smokes, a laid-off garment worker whose apartment radiator went cold months ago, an unemployed janitor who declares, "Life ain't no picnic." He yearns for a building to sweep.

"If it weren't for places like this, we'd starve," says James Quinn, 48, who takes a seat with 25 others in a small basement room reminiscent of a '60s coffeehouse. Tables are set with red checkered tablecloths. A folk singer wails. Steaming cups of vegetable soup, cinnamon toast and coffee are served up by a handful of upper-crust parishioners.

Quinn tugs a dirty blue-jean jacket tight to ward off the chill. A $15,000-a-year elastics wholesaler before his boss went bust, he closed out a small savings account long ago. There are no more unemployment checks. He expects eviction any day, surviving off labor pool work when he can find it.

"Ronald Reagan thinks there are plenty of jobs--that we're all bums--but he's wrong. I'd take anything."

The priest listens, moving as easily among the down-and-outers as he does among the mink coats and dark suits that dot his pews on Sundays. Over the last 20 years, the Rev. Thomas Dix Bowers has revitalized parishes from the eastern shores of Virginia to Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, preaching a gospel salted as heavily with Jung and Charlie Brown as with Jesus. He has charmed and cajoled, preached and prayed about poverty, racism and the inner self, converting complacent parishes of wealthy, upwardly mobile Wasps into crusaders against the human condition.

In Washington, he was the activist priest on Foxhall Road who upset tradition at St. Patrick's by making a black priest his right-hand man.

But here on Park Avenue in the high-rent 50s, where he has taken the helm of one of the most fashionable churches in the world, a church endowed by Vanderbilts and Whitneys, his battle to minister to the poor on a grand scale has pitted him against some of New York's rich and powerful. He has provoked such notables as Jacqueline Onassis and Brooke Astor, three daily newspapers, flamboyant politicians, a former SEC commissioner, influential preservationists and architects, and he has bounced St. Bartholomew's good name between the courts and the gossip columns.

He has been threatened and mocked; New York magazine crucified him in print for starting a holy war on Park Avenue over St. Bart's, a historic landmark. But Bowers, 54, an earthy, charismatic southerner, has not budged. He aims--and his 15-member vestry and a majority of the members have backed him--to allow a British developer to raze the church's parish house and erect a 59-story mirrored skyscraper designed by the Edward Durrel Stone architectural firm in its place across from the Waldorf Astoria. The church property is considered among the most valuable real estate in the city. The church itself, a beautiful Byzantine replica built in 1918, would remain untouched. But inside the parish, members have been swept into the turmoil with friends and family members taking opposite sides of the issue.

The ornate church and parish house are a mixed palet of brick in browns and yellows in a low, level green space amid towering buildings. One neighboring office building was even designed in compatible brick.

There's a showdown coming with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which dubbed St. Bart's, and more than 600 buildings in New York city, untouchable for architectural posterity. But the ramifications go far beyond the showdown. If St. Bart's lawyers are successful in court in what promises to be a classic church-state confrontation destined for the Supreme Court, more than 100 landmark churches in New York could be free to use their property for similar ventures.

Rents of $9.5 million a year from the proposed skyscraper would ensure the survival of financially beleaguered St. Bart's for the next 100 years, Bowers argues. The church, which is no longer able to live off income from its dwindling endowment, could to patch the roof and repair the booming pipe organ. But, more importantly, says Bowers, it would be able to minister to the poor as perhaps no single congregation has ever done.

Bowers plans to spend half the income from the building, $4.5 million a year, on outreach programs in Harlem and South Bronx, dispatch a chunk to the diocese for its own programs and try to catch men like James Quinn--one of 36,000 homeless New Yorkers surviving in the streets on alms and wits.

"I wasn't called to be the curator of a museum," says Bowers. "The question is, 'Do we care more about buildings or people?' "

Onward, Christian Soldier

"I'm usually skeptical of white folk who want to come into the ghetto to help, but Bowers could be our salvation," says the Rev. Wendell Foster, a black pastor and city council member from the South Bronx. "We're certainly not getting help from anyone else."

From his church window, he surveys a "war zone" of debris--strewn lots, burned-out buildings and drug deals in progress. "There are people out there living without heat," says Foster. "Dope is peddled while policemen drive past. People don't live long around here. Minorities in New York just don't have the power to change things through the system. At least St. Bart's wants to help us empower ourselves. Tom Bowers has guts."

Bowers has achieved a precarious perch--"one foot in Heaven, the other on a banana peel," as one friend describes it. And his enemies are now mighty and legion. Opponents are vehement that the St. Bart's property remain untouched as a historic landmark--it was classified as such in 1967--and have rallied some 16 civic and cultural groups against Bowers, including the American Institute of Architects.

Among those walking point for the preservationists are Jacqueline Onassis, New Yorker theater critic Brendan Gill, venerablearchitect Philip Johnson, all veterans of a '70s victory that kept the wrecker's ball from smashing Grand Central Station. Onassis even hosted an elegant lunch for top newspaper editors in her Fifth Avenue apartment to pitch for preservation.

The opponents want the church and its adjoining parish house to be preserved not only for its beauty, but as one of the last open spaces, a lovely garden in the shadowy canyon of skyscrapers.

A model of the proposed new building shows it soaring high above the neighborhood, cantilevering out toward the church, a gleaming pseudo-obelisk designed to reflect scarce light and illuminate the shadows.

Any special dispensation for what Bowers views as a theological matter must come from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a secular body which made St. Bart's a landmark in the first place.

Bowers vows to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to keep the state out of church affairs and remain the arbiter of St. Bart's destiny.

Among his detractors is J. Sinclair Armstrong, a former SEC commissioner-turned-Wall Street lawyer whose bowler hats and a handlebar mustache give him an Edwardian air. He was baptized at St. Bart's. In church and out he lobbies against Bowers, rallying others who still smart over the rector's folksy style and the changes he has brought: a woman priest, modern prayer books, folk masses to draw youngsters, a soup kitchen and the abolition of rented pews. His wish: for Bowers to gallop off and become "a bishop in Texas."

In an internal power struggle, Armstrong tried to unseat a pro-Bowers slate of vestry in a church election. It was a bitterly fought campaign with volunteers on both sides manning phone banks. Bowers purged inactive members from church voting lists. Members were courted. Bowers pitched from the pulpit. He fired the head usher, who had defected to the Armstrong camp. Bowers accused critics of "architectural idolatry," preservationists with both an "edifice complex" and "Marie Antoinette Syndrome" who care more for buildings than people. A local judge who arbitrated the disputed election accused Bowers of tactics that "would make Tammany Hall blush."

But the rector won a key round last December when the parish voted 375 to 354 for the $500 million project. Appeals are pending. Ballots were counted in court, while TV cameras whirred and lawyers challenged votes. Since then, Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore has weighed in for Bowers.

It has become a dirty street fight in this city's corridors of money and power, with both sides deputizing armies of lawyers and PR firms.

Bowers says one powerful real estate man threatened to "run me out of town. He said, 'We'll ruin you. It gets nasty in this city.'

"Some people think they can walk over anyone. But they're not going to walk over me. It's a new day and St. Bart's is not Grand Central Station. It's a church with a mission . . . I'm not going to let them off easy. I'm going to preach what I have to preach," he says. "I shock a lot of people preaching the gospel, but the gospel is radical. I'm supposed to be a prophet. I'm supposed to shock people. That's my job."

Indeed, one of the toughest scenes was played out in the office of Walter Hoving, Tiffany's multimillionaire retired chairman-of-the-board and a ex-vestryman. Hoving tried to fire him. According to Bowers, this is how it went:

"I've had to fire people before," said Hoving. "You're just the wrong man for this place. You're changing everything."

"I have to remind you, Walter," said Bowers. "I am not an employe of Tiffany's. I work for a higher boss. And no one is going to get me out until I've finished what I've been brought here to do."

"I'll pray for you, Tom."

"Pray for yourself."

Passing the Plate?

Hoving is reported to have told friends he would personally give the church $1 million and help raise $25 million on one condition: that Bowers resign. Hoving could not be reached for comment but has disputed published reports he mentioned money as leverage against Bowers in the St. Bart's dispute.

Heaven Can't Wait

"Why did the railroads go out of business?" Bowers demanded from the pulpit one Sunday. "Because they thought they were in the train business--not transportation. The oil companies understood that they were not just in oil, but in energy. And the church needs to understand that it is not in buildings and mortar, it is in the kingdom business--building a kingdom of God, touching the lives of people, caring for them in their pain and misery and suffering."

Brick Walls

Many have listened, but few seem to hear, says his wife, Margaret. "He makes them feel guilty. After his sermons, I keep thinking they'll say, 'We were totally wrong.' But most people go barreling out as if nothing happened. He preaches to himself," she says.

Yet he has a handful of respected allies. Megamillionaire industrialist Marc Haas--he once sold his stamp collection for $11 million--an ex-vestryman whose chauffeur-driven blue Rolls-Royce hugs the sidewalk outside the 11 a.m. Sunday service, is among them. He recruited Bowers from Atlanta to revitalize a once stodgy church suffering from dwindling ranks. As office towers replaced Park Avenue apartments and St. Bart's patrons died or moved away, it lost its exclusive neighborhood flavor.

"We just don't see ourselves sitting on a lot of bricks and mortar while people are starving and we are in a position to help them," says Haas. "The issue is, what is a church for. If its role is to to protect buildings rather than care about the poor, then, by golly, the church ought to go out of business. Let's just call it a museum and let in tourists."

Publisher Charles Scribner Jr., a church member for 25 years, calls Bowers a "man of deep Christian conviction who has kept his good will and gentlemanly composure in circumstances that, at times, seem like a kind of martyrdom. He's had to play hardball, all right, but the hardness of the ball has surprised many of us who are accustomed to the game. The personal attacks on the rector have been absolutely disgraceful."

He has been accused, for example, of seeking funds to promote himself via a TV ministry, akin to the one he had in Atlanta, where his contemporary sermons on a cable television channel offered an alternative to the Falwells and Schullers on the airwaves. Unlike the video fundamentalists, Bowers didn't used the camera to pass the plate. Bowers says St. Bart's doesn't need the high-rise deal to finance a low-budget television service.

At Sunday coffee hour, Bowers' opponents work the crowd, passing out "Save St. Bart's" literature and buttons, commandos in the Committee to Oppose the Sale of St. Bartholomew's Church, founded by Armstrong and others. Tension nags at the well-dressed flock. Friendships have been strained or broken, families divided over the issue.

"The good people of the church--the quality people--who have been coming for many years are against the building," says real-estate broker Maxine Sheppard. She is wearing a hat of black rooster feathers.

"It will look hideous," says Don Chappell, the fired usher. "It will dwarf the church. There ought to be other ways to raise money."

Armstrong accuses the vestry of mismanaging funds. "What we need is a fellow like Ronald Reagan on the vestry," he says. "All we've got is a bunch of spendthrifts."

Passion Play

It's hardly the first time Bowers has been mired in controversy. In Washington, D.C., as rector of St. Patrick's Episcopal Church, he rattled the parish by hiring a black priest to open a storefront mission in a Southeast ghetto. It was 1966, and he remembers the day he walked down the aisle of St. Pat's, the fashionable church on Foxhall Road, with the Rev. Jesse Anderson, now a minister in Anacostia who went on to become deputy director of the District's Youth Services and a leader in the black community.

Fifty families stalked out of church that day, and Bowers began shrugging off death threats. His secretary announced, "I'm not working for a nigger." He fired her on the spot. Another elderly church member waylaid him in the hall and said he didn't like it either.

"Then get the hell out!" shouted Bowers. The old man later came back and they made up. Bowers preached at his funeral. At Thanksgiving, Anderson watched a woman "giving Tom hell" because the black minister was scheduled to preach on such an important holiday.

"If you'd rather someone else do it, that's okay," said Anderson, offering to step down.

"No, you're going to do it," said Bowers.

So, the church integrated and members poured in from embassies and Capitol Hill, replacing those who had left. Two years later, the storefront mission in the ghetto was spared in the 1968 riots, following the Martin Luther King assassination. And St. Pat's went on to start a model Headstart program and establish a parish school, with scholarships for the underprivileged.

"It hasn't been the same without him," says Washington lawyer Richard Beatty, a senior warden. "But it never slipped back to what it was. Tom's spirit never left."

Coats of Many Colors

In 1971, a delegation in dark suits arrived in Washington from a dying downtown church in Atlanta and begged Bowers to come South. "Margaret, did you call the undertakers?" he laughed when businessman Brad Currey, former president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, knocked on his door.

And off he went to revive St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Peachtree Street, where he convinced squeamish bluebloods to open a soup kitchen to feed (and counsel) downtown derelicts. "There was a lot of opposition," says Dr. Joe Jarardeau. "People were upset at having to walk through bums just to get into the church. They smelled bad, they looked bad."

He swayed the vestry by showing videotaped interviews with the needy men. One man who said he was an ex-FBI agent related he'd sought help from social service agencies, then began knocking on church doors. It brought many to tears.

"I can still see their faces after all these years," says Jarardeau, an obstetrician. "So many of us are insulated from that side of reality as members of the upper middle class. But they're the derelicts helping us as much as we're helping them."

The soup kitchen now feeds from 400 to 700 people each day. "Tom made us think what a church should be about," Jarardeau says. "He was a social reformer. He felt we had a responsibility for our fellow man, regardless of race, creed or color. He even preached that Martin Luther King Jr. was a saint. That sure as hell took courage in a white church on Peachtree Street."

Others were disturbed because Bowers loved fine wines, haute cuisine and good cigars and drove too fast. (A state trooper once let him off with the warning, "Father, slow down, or you'll wind up in the fast lane with the Devil.")

"He's not a saint by a long shot," says Jarardeau. "He told some jokes I wouldn't want my wife to hear. But he's turned a lot of people around. He's a man of God. So what if he's got an ego. He believes what he preaches. He's not just giving you a story because its Sunday."

While he ministered to the poor, he had a special knack for making the rich feel loved, too. "So many clerics butter up the rich to get their money, but Tom made it clear that he didn't give a damn how much money they had," recalls Tom Shelton, an attorney who attends St. Luke's. "The rich got a sense Tom liked them as human beings, not because they had money."

Under Bowers, St. Luke's bounced back. He raised $2 million; membership shot up. His sermons were carried on cable TV. He was so outspoken, he became fashionable, the darling of city politicians and power brokers. Former mayor Maynard Jackson proclaimed a Tom Bowers Day; Coretta King gave him a human service award. He was approached about running for mayor.

War Story

Bowers backed into the priesthood. The son of a wealthy Norfolk, Va., businessman, he grew into a preppy adolescence, hanging around the country club, playing golf, partying. To instill a ration of discipline, he was dispatched to Virginia Military Institute.

At 20, he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and was off to a combat tour in Korea, where he won a bronze star. After his first day of fighting, he concluded that going to war "was the biggest mistake of my life. The North Koreans were screaming when they attacked, high on hashish or opium. They ran over each other, shouting and blowing whistles. It didn't matter how many you killed, they kept coming. It shook you down to your toenails."

The war transformed Bowers. He remembers befriending an outcast young officer who had fallen apart in battle. Out of 35 young officers who shipped out together, he was one of three to survive. Among those who didn't make it was his best friend, a football player from West Point. He came home to the country club, but there were no parades. "My friends were dying and no one cared." He felt out of sync, much as the Vietnam veterans did later.

He enrolled at Sewanee, traditionally a college for budding southern patricians. He studied literature and religion under a priest who changed his life, later turning down a fat offer from a lumber business in favor of the seminary. He took command of two tiny churches on the eastern shore of Virgina, and began making waves.

He recruited black families, baptized his cleaning lady. A friend introduced him to a young widow with a baby daughter. Her husband had been a seminary student who had died from cancer. On their first date, they rocked in a porch swing, talking for hours. Bowers proposed the next day, and Margaret Pendleton, daughter of longtime Virginia delegate Nathaniel Pendleton, said yes. They have four children.

In 1959, they moved to Washington, where Bowers became assistant rector at St. Alban's. Then came St. Patrick's, the move to Atlanta, then to New York four years back.

"Atlanta was Camelot," says Margaret, a sturdy woman with a generous laugh. "But the world isn't really like that; the world is more like New York. It takes a lot out of you."

Dispensation?

The editorials lambasting Bowers for his stand have brought both to tears. "If Faust exchanged his soul for immortality, the temptation of St. Bartholomew's is the more pragmatic lure of financial security," argued The New York Times' architecture critic.

Bowers views it not as a "temptation," but as an opportunity. In early 1980, real-estate men began hearing the rumors: As odd as it sounded, St. Bart's needed money. The phone began ringing. One offered to move the church "brick by brick" from the site. A representative from another unidentified company said, "Give me a few days and I'll have a certified check for $100 million, but that would be cheating you."

Word leaked out that St. Bart's would be demolished for money. Bowers denies there were any plans to tear down the church. At Sunday services, he announced options were being explored.

The opposition began digging in.

St. Bart's is one of 600 properties in New York christened untouchables, historic landmarks by fiat of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. About 100 of those are churches and synagogues--most of them strapped for cash, too, their charities increasingly serving refugees of Reaganomics--cheering St. Bart's from the sidelines. Only seven dispensations have been granted to landmarked petitioners, and two of those had to go to court to prove financial hardship, the only loophole.

From a $12 million endowment and other sources, St. Bart's expects $3 million in revenues in 1982. But the proposed budget anticipates a deficit of $400,000, up from $260,000 a year earlier. Red ink in 1979 came to $650,000, says business manager Joe Parish, a Harvard MBA. Hard times persist in spite of a tripling in personal contributions (to $300,000 a year) since Bowers arrived in 1978. Before that, contributions averaged $100,000 a year, or about $5 a week per person, half the national average.

There have been vague, tentative offers of individual or corporate bail-outs to keep the church afloat and the property intact. But Bowers says no one has come forward to sign a pledge card with the kind of money the church needs to survive and prosper.

Few anticipate a reprieve based on hardship from the Landmarks Commission. "If they get away with this, you can kiss landmarks preservation law goodbye," says Menapace. "St. Bart's is only talking about money for the poor to hide the personal ambitions of the rector and the vestry. All they want is money and power."

Bowers snaps at "knee-jerk" preservationists who he says could care less about the poor. "It's easy to be liberal and faddish--for buildings over people--when you have money. Jackie Onassis doesn't give a damn about the poor. But what I don't understand is how a Kennedy can act like that."

He invited Onassis to tea after he learned of her interest. They sat in his book-lined, paneled study. He talked. She listened. He'd greatly admired President Kennedy, once even got to shake his hand, he said. He gave her a tour of St. Bart's, spoke about his fears for the church, his concerns for the poor.

"It was like talking to a lampshade," says Bowers. "I thought that because she was a 'liberal,' she would care. But how could she really care about the poor? She's never been close to them. It's not out of meanness. She just runs in a different world. She's immune. She's been vaccinated from that side of life. Why didn't she give me $2 or $3 million to kick it off if she cared so much? If she and Brooke Astor had come up with the money, I'd have had to go their way."