The Rev. Canon Dr. Harold T. Lewis, who chronicled the experience of African Americans in the Episcopal Church and led Pittsburgh’s Calvary Church through a legal struggle with its conservative bishop, died December 31 at 74.
The grandson of Barbadian immigrants, Lewis grew up in Brooklyn, and studied sociology at McGill. He was a social worker in New York for several years before training for the ministry at Yale Divinity School. He later earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Birmingham in England.
Lewis began his ministry as a missionary in Honduras and Guatemala, and then completed a research fellowship at Cambridge. He taught at seminaries in Zaire, South Africa, Barbados, and Mozambique, as well as at General Theology Seminary in New York, and the Diocese of Long Island’s Mercer School of Theology. From 1983 to 1994 he served as the Episcopal Church’s staff officer for Black ministries.
He was the author of several books, including Yet with A Steady Beat: The African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church. The book was the first major study of its kind, focusing on the Catholic identity that drew many Black Americans to the Episcopal Church, and the struggles they faced in securing an equal place in its life.
“Harold Lewis’s scholarship on African Americans in the Episcopal Church expanded the scope of how to narrate the church’s history,” said the Rev. Dr. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, associate professor of church history at Seminary of the Southwest. Lewis also, he said, “posed a fundamental ecclesiological challenge. If the Episcopal Church claimed to be a catholic church, was it truly so in those long periods of its history when it denied full rights and privileges to Black parishes and its members? To me this question is the essence of Lewis’s legacy, one that calls the Episcopal Church to fully embody its catholic identity.”
In 1996, Lewis was elected rector of Calvary Church, a wealthy, progressive parish in the predominantly conservative Diocese of Pittsburgh. He led ecumenical efforts focused on racial justice and education, developed a partnership between the church and a local synagogue, and oversaw several major capital projects.
Lewis was best known as the leader of those who resisted Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan’s efforts to lead the diocese out of the Episcopal Church. He filed a civil lawsuit against Duncan in 2003, when the diocese passed a resolution declaring that parish buildings and property belonged to the parishes instead of the diocese.
The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, and led to a process that allowed most of the diocesan assets to remain in the hands of those who remained within the Episcopal Church after a majority of the churches, under Duncan’s leadership, broke away to form the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2008.
Lewis is survived by Claudette, his wife of 51 years, and by their son, Justin Craig Lewis.
The Very Rev. Canon J. Robert Orpen Jr., a pioneer in Latino ministry in the Diocese of Chicago, died at his home in Chicago on December 16 at 100.
Orpen grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and was baptized, confirmed, and eventually ordained to the diaconate and the priesthood at St. Stephen’s Church. He graduated from Brown University, and then spent three years in the U.S. Army during World War II. He earned degrees in theology from General Theological Seminary and Nashotah House.
He began his ministry as a priest by serving a six-parish mission in remote western Nevada, before moving east to New York, where he became curate at the Church of the Transfiguration in Manhattan, and then vicar of St. George’s in the Bronx, where he helped the congregation to achieve parish status.
In 1958, he became rector of the Church of the Advent, Logan Square, in Chicago, where he remained until his retirement 27 years later. He served as dean of the Chicago-West Deanery for 12 years, and was made dean emeritus at his retirement in 1986.
During the 1960s, the neighborhood around his church became predominantly Latino. Orpen took a Berlitz course in Spanish and a language intensive in Mexico, and placed a sign in front of his church advertising a Sunday Mass in Spanish. The congregation grew steadily, and in 1971 was established as the Diocese of Chicago’s first Latino mission, Nuestra Senora de las Americas. Orpen assisted in establishing six more Spanish-speaking congregations in Chicago and its suburbs.
After his retirement, Orpen worked as a supply priest, and assisted at St. Michael’s Church in Barrington and St. James Cathedral. He and his wife, Vinnie, traveled extensively, and he led several pilgrimages to the Holy Land. He was made an honorary canon on his 98th birthday by Bishop Jeffrey Lee. He was preceded in death by a son, and is survived by his wife, two children, and a granddaughter.
Charles Vert Willie, a sociologist who served as the first African-American vice president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies and designed Boston’s school desegregation program, died January 11 at 94.
A native of Dallas, Willie graduated from Morehouse College, where his classmates included fellow sociology major Martin Luther King Jr. He earned advanced degrees in the subject at Atlanta University and Syracuse University. He taught and served in the student affairs department at Syracuse, meeting his wife, Mary Sue, while they sang together in the choir at Grace Church. He took a leave of absence to direct the research supporting Washington Action for Youth, a groundbreaking federal program focused on crime prevention.
Willie and his family moved to Massachusetts in 1966, and he began teaching in Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, as well as at nearby Episcopal Divinity School. Harvard appointed him a professor of education and urban studies in its Graduate School of Education in 1974.
Willie was elected vice president of the House of Deputies in 1970. An advocate for social justice, he preached at the irregular ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, a groundbreaking group of female priests.
When the House of Bishops refused to recognize the ordinations, he resigned his position in protest, writing in a 1976 public statement, “When that which is legal and that which is loving are in contention with each other, legality must give way to love. If the Episcopal Church would not change its sexist ways, I had to resign as an officer of the church, for I could no longer enforce procedures which I knew were evil and sinful.” At the 2015 General Convention, he was presented with the House of Deputies Medal for his distinguished service to the church.
In 1974, when federal judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. found that Boston’s public schools were unconstitutionally segregated, he asked Willie to serve as one of four masters charged with implementing a forced busing system, in the face of violent resistance by white residents.
Several years later, Willie’s former student, Mayor Raymond Flynn, invited him to develop a comprehensive desegregation plan for the school system. Known as “Controlled Choice,” the system was used in Boston for decades, and Willie developed plans based on its model for school systems across the country.
Willie was the author of 30 books, and was honored for his scholarship and leadership by the American Sociological Association, and by appointment to the President’s Commission on Mental Health by Jimmy Carter. Willie is survived by his wife of 59 years, three children, and a large extended family.