A gentle giant

Trinity Chapel
Trinity Chapel drew a crowd Sunday to remember John Burgess. Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

By Russell Hoxsie - July 26, 2007

Grace Church in Vineyard Haven, St. Andrew's Church in Edgartown, and Trinity Chapel in Oak Bluffs celebrated the life and ministry of the late Right Reverend John Melville Burgess on Sunday at Trinity Church, with the Reverend Ronald Edward Ramsey, the preacher from St. John's Episcopal Church in Arlington.

This was the seventh annual Burgess Sunday endowed in part by Esther Burgess, the late widow the 12th Diocesan Bishop of Massachusetts and the first African-American Episcopal Bishop in the United States. Mrs. Burgess was a force unto herself and helped endow the annual Burgess series of visiting preachers who, she said, should be clergy of color whose mission in life has incorporated significant work with minority people of color. At the time of a march in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964, she was arrested and jailed for three days (with others, including Mrs. Malcolm Peabody, mother of Massachusetts governor Endicott Peabody) for refusing to leave the Ponce De Leon Motel when she was told she had to eat in the kitchen.

"Witness Magazine" eulogized Bishop Burgess when he died in August 2003, as "among the last of the Episcopal Church's great progressive bishops of the twentieth century." He began his ordained ministry in a small community outside of Cincinnati where he served "the poorest of the poor" in a mission church. He was superintendent of a day school, a medical clinic and social services center.... His activism for racial integration brought him experience with the auto workers' union and helped form his understanding of working people and urban poor and minorities, enabling him to provide effective leadership across lines of race and class.

Bishop Burgess served as the first denominational chaplain of Howard University and became friend and mentor to many from the Caribbean and Africa. The contacts they made enabled students to return to home countries and provide progressive and effectual leadership themselves. In 1956 he was named Canon to the National Cathedral in Washington. He used his pulpit to heighten the consciousness of the Episcopal Church at a time of ferment in the Supreme Court as it moved toward overthrowing the separate but equal doctrine, opening the door to the modern civil rights era.

As Archdeacon of Boston's missions and parishes and superintendent of Boston City Mission he effected reorganization of the mission to enable it to serve communities outside Boston as the Episcopal City Mission. The John Melville Burgess Urban Fund, which he initiated, was named in his honor at his retirement. The fund, which makes grants available to community groups addressing systemic causes of poverty, is considered a ground-breaker in granting money and has contributed more than $3 million to revitalization efforts in eastern Massachusetts cities.

Bishop Burgess never lost hold of his vision for what the church could be: "I would hope that our congregations would feel responsible for inviting people of all kinds into their membership and not feel that certain people are our kind. Our kind must be all people. In retirement, he and Esther bought a home on the corner of Midland Avenue and Pine Street, Vineyard Haven, a small racially integrated neighborhood of modest family homes.

Mary Ann, my wife, remembers John Burgess as a volunteer-reader for primary grade kids at Tisbury School in Vineyard Haven, the one whom the boys sought out and clustered around. The man who appeared so serene and quiet on the outside was serene within himself, I thought but, looking over his life of activism and vision, his steely interior showed through more brightly with his years.