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A Bishop Who Made History

In 1970, John Melville Burgess was elected the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. As such, he also became the rector of Old North Church.

Burgess had been the first Black suffragan bishop elected over a predominantly white diocese in the Episcopal church, and his election to diocesan bishop made history again. His appointment came at a time of reflection within the Episcopal church as it responded to the civil rights movement. Burgess himself has noted that the church has been “the least able to adjust to the change in racial atmosphere.” 

As rector, Burgess actively took part in planning for the 250th anniversary of Old North Church. He also participated in the 1975 celebration of the 200th anniversary of the lantern signal attended by President Gerald Ford.

Burgess exemplified active citizenship. Throughout his ministry, he devoted himself to human rights, to care for the poor, and to supporting people of color in the ministry. He was known for his compassion and tireless care for people’s well-being in every sense: physical, emotional, and spiritual. After retirement, he became a professor of pastoral theology at Yale’s Episcopal seminary, the Berkeley Divinity School.

Based on research by Selvin Backert, ONI Research Intern, Spring Semester 2023