News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |    Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

Bishop John Burgess, 94; broke color barrier in Mass.

Rt. Rev. John M. Burgess, who as bishop of Massachusetts was the first black to head an Episcopal diocese in the United States, died Sunday in Vineyard Haven, where he lived. He was 94.

Bishop Burgess was named the 12th bishop of Massachusetts in 1969, and he served the state, then the largest Episcopalian diocese in the nation, until 1976. After stepping down as bishop, he became professor of ministry at Yale University's Divinity School.

Of medium height, stocky of build and mild of manner, Bishop Burgess was an active leader in the civil rights and ecumenical movements. "He gave the encouragement to so many people of color to make that next step forward and not to be afraid," Leonard C. Alkins, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, told The New York Times. "He was a beacon and a drum major for all people."

In 1975, Bishop Burgess was made chairman of the Black Ecumenical Commission, a five-pronged statewide mission for the black church in Massachusetts.

He once said: "I think the churches, as we have known them, have got to help people to understand how the world and the spirit are intertwined. I think this is our biggest task, to break down these barriers, this polarization."

Bishop Burgess also felt strongly that the choice of bishops and parish priests in the Anglican community should be made solely on their qualifications and not on race. If the church is to speak to the world, it must speak on terms of equality after setting an example of quality on its own, he said in 1968.

In addition, he was an early proponent of the ordination of women as priests.

Bishop Burgess first took up ecclesiastical duties in Boston in 1956. Widely recognized for his spiritual, administrative and intellectual qualifications, he had been serving as Canon of the Washington Cathedral in the nation's capital when he was chosen for the dual role of archdeacon of Boston and superintendent of the Episcopal Mission. He was the first black archdeacon in New England.

Six years later, in 1962, he was consecrated a suffragan bishop in Trinity Church in Copley Square, becoming the first black anywhere to serve as an Episcopal bishop of white congregations. In the summer of 1969, he was elected bishop of the Massachusetts diocese to succeed Rt. Rev. Anson Phelps Stokes, who was retiring.

Born in Grand Rapids, Mich., on March 11, 1909, John Melville Burgess was the son of Theodore T. Burgess, a dining car waiter on the Piere Marquette Railroad, and Ethel I. (Beverly) Burgess. He was a graduate of the University of Michigan in 1930 and received his master's degree in sociology a year later. He graduated from the Episcopal Theological School in 1934 and returned home to begin his ministry in Grand Rapids.

The theme of social service ran throughout Bishop Burgess's career. When he was vicar of the Mission of St. Simon of Cyrene in Woodlawn, Ohio, he directed a community center and day school in addition to church work. He said he believed it was important to minister to the physical as well as spiritual needs of a depressed community.

In 1946 he became chaplain to Episcopal students at Howard University, Washington, and five years later was made a Canon of the Washington Cathedral.

He held honorary degrees from the University of Michigan, Boston College, Assumption College, Suffolk University, the University of Massachusetts, Trinity College, Northeastern University, Bryant College and St. Augustine's College, Raleigh, N.C., of which he was a trustee. He also served as a trustee of St. Paul's College, Lawrenceville, Va., Berkeley Divinity School, Groton School, St. Mark's School and the Deaconess Hospital.

Bishop Burgess served as a past president of the Massachusetts Clerical Association and vice-president of the Overseas Mission Society. He had represented the Episcopal Church as an official delegate to the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches that met in New Delhi, India, in 1961.

He also was a member of the Boards of Directors of the National Council of Churches, the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union, the Church Society for College Work, the Church Pension Fund, the National Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, the Massachusetts Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, and the Boston Committee on Foreign Relations.

He leaves his wife, the Esther (Taylor); two daughters, Julia Burgess of Washington, D.C., and Margaret Harrison of Boston; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Friday at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston. A memorial service is being planned for Martha's Vineyard.

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months