Friday, August 25, 2006

The Reverend William Howard Melish was one executor of my father's estate

The house once belonged to communists: Mary Jane Melish, a distant cousin of the Marshalls, and her husband, an Episcopal priest named William Howard Melish, who oversaw the awarding of the Stalin Peace Prize (the communists' alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize) in 1953. In 1943, he joined the board of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship through what was then the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights. (It is now St. Ann's.) Through the council, communist Episcopalians met with their Jewish and atheist counterparts. The only people they shut out were the authorities. But as the witch hunt of the 1950's intensified, the authorities came in anyway - and with an imperialist flourish padlocked the church. For a while, fellow travelers came in through the windows. Finally the Melishes moved their headquarters to the Dean Street house, where for years they ran a program for single mothers. In the 1960's, legend has it, they gave shelter to a fugitive named Angela Davis.
Information about William Howard Melish
in "The Brooklyn Lodgers" by Virgina Heffernan, April 14, 2002

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Wikipedia on Angela Davis

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W.E.B. DuBois, a neighbor of William Howard Melish's Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights (NY), writes in his Autobiography (1968):
"Howard Melish is one of the few Christian clergymen for whom I have the highest respect. Honest and conscientious, believing sincerely in much of the Christian dogma, which I reject, but working honestly and without hypocrisy, for the guidance of the young, for the uplift of the poor and ignorant, and for the betterment of his city and his country, he has been driven from his work and his career ruined by a vindictive bishop of his church, with no effective protest from most of the Christian ministry and membership or of the people of the United States. The Melish case is perhaps at once the most typical and frightening illustration of present American religion and my reaction. Here is a young man of ideal character, of impeccable morals; a hard worker, especially among the poor and unfortunate, with fine family relations. His father had helped build one of the most popular Episcopal churches in the better part of Brooklyn. He himself had married a well-educated woman, and had three sons in school. The community about it was changing from well-to-do people of English and Dutch descent, to white-collar and laboring folk of Italian, Negro and Puerto Rican extraction. Trinity church, under the Melishes, adapted itself to changing needs, and invited neighborhood membership. It was not a large church, but it was doing the best work among the young and foreign-born of any institution in Brooklyn.

"The young rector took one step for which the bishop, most of his fellow clergymen and the well-to-do community, with its business interests, pilloried him. He joined and became an official of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship. He was accused immediately of favoring communism, and to appease criticism he gave up his official position in this organization, but refused to resign his membership. Allegedly for this reason the bishop, most of the clergy and the well-to-do community proceeded to force him out of the church. The real reason behind their fight was anger because a rich, white, "respectable" church was being surrendered to workers and Negroes. It became a renewed battle between Episcopal authority and democratic rule. That his parish wanted to retain Melish as rector was unquestionable. Through the use of technicalities in the canon law and in accord with the decision of [Roman] Catholic judges who believed in Episcopal power, Howard Melish lost his church, had his life work ruined, the church itself closed, and its local influence ended. There was vigorous protest against this by a few devoted colleagues, many of them Jews and liberals. But the great mass of the Episcopal church membership was silent and did nothing."

The "heavy" in the case was the Bishop of Long Island, the Rt. Rev. James P. DeWolfe, an Anglo-Catholic with a very high sense of his own episcopal importance. As a friend has written, "My Catholic sympathies would naturally have been with him, but his harrying of the Melishes made him an unlovely character." As Melish was of a very "low-church" persuasion, the bishop appeared to be making it a "Catholic" vs. "Protestant" issue as well as a political one. But as Melish points out in his Strength for Struggle, "One can see . . how much more difficult the situation was made for the bishop when nearly a score of men from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church rose to our defense and shared in the maintaining of the services. They acted so unobtrusively that our own people were surprised beyond words when they were told of the personal attitudes and customs of these ministers when in their own parishes." The English Anglican Socialist, Stanley Evans, became one of his strongest and most dependable supporters.

Howard Melish went on to work with Carl and Ann Braden in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he continued to suffer attacks on his character by the likes of Jesse Helms.
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Wikipedia on Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Southern Christian Leadership Conference

2 comments:

kozan said...

While my grandfather was certainly the boss of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island from 1942 to 1966, I remember him as a staunch liberal, supporter of FDR, The New Deal, Blacks, and the less fortunate. He even canvassed for a Black bishop and said to me in the early 1960's that there would soon be one. He was right. The Black churches he visited (I went with him on several occasions for Confirmations) loved him.

To paint him as a right-wing conservative "heavy" is a complete fiction. He was forthright in his opinions and accomplished many great things in the Diocese during his tenure, including the building of a seminary in Garden City for mid-life men who wanted to enter the ministry after retiring from previous work.

He was loving and friendly to all people I can ever remember in my presence, and I knew him for 21 years.

George DeWolfe
7/16/08

Gabi Clayton said...

Thank you, George, for your comment and your perspective on your grandfather. What I posted about him was from an entry in Wikipedia at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Christian_Leadership_Conference
and I welcome a wider view at the man.