The Living Church

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The Living ChurchOctober 10, 1999Community Builder by Rev. Harold T. Lewis219(15) p. 13

Community Builder
Shelton hale bishop
by Rev. Harold T. Lewis

With parishioner Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and others, he decried discrimination in housing, employment, and in the Armed Forces.

On the Feast of St. Philip and St. James, 1943, St. Philip's Church, Harlem, the second oldest black congregation in the Episcopal Church (after St. Thomas', Philadelphia, founded by Absalom Jones) celebrated its 125th anniversary. On that occasion, Bishop William T. Manning of New York, in the presence of Presiding Bishop Henry St. George Tucker, officiated at the consecration of the church building that had been home to the parish since 1911. The bishop praised the leadership of Shelton Hale Bishop, St. Philip's fifth rector, who had begun his rectorship 10 years before at the height of the Depression. Not only had he rescued the parish from the brink of financial ruin, but he built up both its membership and its coffers, making possible the burning of the mortgage.

When called to that office, Fr. Bishop was no stranger to the 4,000 members of St. Philip's, as he had succeeded his father, Hutchens Chew Bishop, who had been rector for 47 years. The elder Bishop, foreseeing that the black population would migrate northward on the island of Manhattan, had moved the parish from 25th Street and acquired property on 133rd and 134th streets, which included 10 new apartment houses and the lots on which the new church, parish hall and rectory were later built. White landlords in Harlem who had steadfastly refused to sell to blacks, nevertheless transferred their property to Hutchens Bishop, not realizing, because of his fair complexion, that he was an African American!

Shelton Hale Bishop was graduated from Columbia University, and like his father, prepared for the ordained ministry at General Theological Seminary. Ordained deacon in 1914, he became curate at St. Thomas' Church, Chicago, where he was ordained to the priesthood a year later. He then began a ministry in Pittsburgh, where he merged two congregations and founded the Church of the Holy Cross. In 1923, he returned to New York to serve as assistant to his father at St. Philip's, where he supervised religious education and youth work.

Fr. Bishop's rectorship was characterized by his response to the needs of the Harlem community. To provide a safe haven for the youth of the community, the parish hall doors were flung open at the "Fun Center," where Leonard Bernstein provided piano accompaniment for a dance troupe. The rector personally negotiated a truce between two neighborhood gangs. Exposing racist practices of the New York City Parks Department, he fought for the construction of playgrounds in Harlem. With parishioner Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and others, he decried discrimination in housing, employment, and in the Armed Forces. He invited AA to meet at the church, and 20 years before psychiatric services were provided at nearby Harlem Hospital, he established a clinic in St. Philip's undercroft, providing counseling and psychotherapy for Harlem residents at a cost of 25 cents per visit. Recognized beyond his community, he was elected to the diocesan standing committee and the Board of General Seminary, and served as Episcopal representative to the National Council of Churches. In 1952, however, despite a groundswell of support, the diocesan nominating committee refused to nominate him for suffragan bishop, and when it was learned that he would be nominated from the floor, the election was called off. Shelton Hale Bishop, pastor, prophet and pioneer, retired in 1957, and died five years later. o

The Rev. Harold T. Lewis is the rector of Calvary Church, Pittsburgh, Pa.