The Reverend Canon William H. Barnwell died at the age of 81 in New Orleans on March 27, 2020, after 11 days on a hospital ventilator. Coronavirus was suspected.
Barnwell was born in Charleston and raised on Legare Street. He was class of 1960 at Sewanee, whose motto Ecce Quam Bonum (“Behold, how good!” — Psalm 133) reflects his life. In honor of his lifelong ministry, Barnwell was due to be awarded a doctorate this May at Sewanee’s University of the South commencement, but the global pandemic has both stolen him away and canceled the academic ceremonies.
During his years at Virginia Seminary, his summer ministry involved working with young African Americans in Charleston, an experience that influenced him profoundly. Sam Lloyd, dean of the Washington Cathedral, said that Barnwell thereafter “embraced a new vision of relations between blacks and whites.” Lloyd quoted Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, who said that Barnwell’s “change in consciousness [led] to change in conscience and that move[d] him into action.” Although he wrestled briefly with family expectations that he become a banker, he ultimately resolved to enter the priesthood. His formative experiences in Charleston led to what Lloyd called “amazingly effective and influential” work in parishes as diverse as Trinity Church of New Orleans, Trinity Church, Boston, and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., all cities in which Barnwell became known for his vision and leadership. His pastoral skills imbued a long and courageous ministry to prisoners and the biblical trilogy of “the poor, the sick and the suffering.”
Barnwell was also known and admired for his literary knowledge and his study of Southern authors. In that capacity, he taught at the University of New Orleans and led seminars at the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina. An author himself, he published four books illustrating his experience in a lifetime of embodying the Christian call to care for the under-served, with emphasis on racial reconciliation. Comfortable in any social setting, he was universally known to be loving, warm, gracious and welcoming, putting people at ease by his friendly greeting, his cheering word.
In his memoir Lead Me On, Let Me Stand: A Clergyman’s Story in White and Black, Barnwell recounted an incident on a train when, as a boy, he witnessed his own father perform an act of bravery by intervening when a large man was about to hit his daughter. Barnwell Sr., a man of slight stature, wedged himself between the two and said, “Hit me instead.” Nephew Ed Vaughan attests, “This was Uncle William’s inspiration of courage in the face of danger to do the right thing even if it is dangerous or unpopular. He was a crusader for people who had no voice. He dedicated his life to the service of others, a true servant leader.” Despite current pandemic restrictions on public gatherings in New Orleans, the African American community found a way to honor their fallen friend and advocate by tossing numerous flowers into his yard from the safety of a caravan of cars.
Barnwell’s cousin, Anna Heath, testifies, “He gave himself to people.” Although he spent decades ministering to his adopted New Orleans community, he never lost fondness for his Charleston roots. Heath vividly remembers his New Orleans home, “full of family records and family photographs.” He had endless affection for and stories about Charlestonians.
One disarmingly attractive attribute was Barnwell’s entirely unaffected but absolutely thick and permanent Old Charleston accent, a gift of his native city. Fellow clergy attest that the distinctive Southern hallmark amazed his congregations at Trinity Church on Copley Square, and “soon won over Boston.” Tom Kirby-Smith, poet and long-ago fraternity brother at Sewanee, spoke recently of Barnwell’s warmth and generosity, “Early this year I called him up just to hear his voice, that rich Charleston accent unlike any other.”
Per Barnwell’s daughter, Janet: “When he was a younger man, he used to say to me, ‘Janet, when I get old, and you and Corinne [his wife of 44 years] try to put me in an Old Folks Home, I will go out to my cabin, and get a load of buckshot in a gun, and anyone who tries to put me away will get a fanny full of buckshot!’ He was only partly kidding. He really didn’t want to grow old. He had the spirit of a 28-year-old in an 80-old’s body. Aging was never going to be easy for him, but I do think he had many more good years ahead of him and now they’ve been stolen from him by a pandemic that no one can understand.”
The full verse of Sewanee’s motto declares, “Behold how good and how joyful it is for brethren to live together in harmony.” Said Heath, “Cousin William WAS Ecce Quam Bonum!” She added, “His presence always made me feel the goodness of life, how things can be. Once he sent me a voice mail, and I saved it for years simply because of the sincerity and cheer of his greeting, ‘Hello, Cousin!’”
Sadly, now is the time for all of Charleston to join in saying, “Goodbye, Cousin,” and “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Dr. Waring McCrady is a retired professor of French and resident of Sewanee, Tn.