Bishop Walter Dennis dies after long illness

April 1, 2003

One of the Episcopal Church's most prominent black bishops--a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s--died March 30 at the age of 70 after a long illness. Bishop Walter Decoster Dennis, suffragan bishop of the Diocese of New York from 1979 to 1998, was living in retirement in Hampton, Virginia.

Ordained as a deacon in 1956 after graduating from the General Theological Seminary in New York, he started his ministry at the time of the landmark Supreme Court decision (Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education) that broke the back of legal segregation in the United States. As the first African-American to serve full-time at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, he worked with the national church to develop conferences on race relations.

While serving as vicar of St. Cyrpian's Church in Hampton, 1960-65, he was also adjunct professor of constitutional law and American history at Hampton University. He opened the doors of the church and welcomed busloads of people headed south on the freedom rides in that turbulent era in American life.

Returning to the cathedral in 1965 as a canon residentiary, he designed forums on the issues of the day, including homosexuality, as well as extremism and politics and homosexuality. For one conference he brought together southern rectors with Thurgood Marshall, who was at the time the attorney for Brown in the Supreme Court case. Even after Marshall became the first African-American member of the Supreme Court, he and Dennis remained friends. The bishop gave the eulogy at Marshall's funeral.

Among his other commitments, Dennis was a founding member of the Union of Black Episcopalians and also of the Guild of St. Ives, a group of ordained lawyers who worked as advocates for the poor, serving as a place where they could turn for legal advice.

A memorial service will be held at the cathedral on April 9 at 10:30am.

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