Hunt Williams’ election as a bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina in 1990 meant he had an impact on the church he loved not only in the state but throughout the country.
Yet he was best understood in a more intimate setting, as the rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in uptown Charlotte, where he served for 27 years. There, he delivered sermons quoting both St. Paul and modern storyteller Garrison Keillor. He applied organizational skills at budget time by working numbers with pencil and paper, as ashes from his cigarette spilled on his black shirt.
And it was pastoring his devoted flock where Williams showed his true sense of his vocation. He always knew who needed him and where he should be, for instance with a family in a hospital room at 1 a.m. when a beloved father died, and back on their doorstep at 8 a.m. offering comfort.
Williams, a community leader who helped found Hospice of Charlotte and Planned Parenthood of Greater Charlotte, died peacefully Monday at the Stewart Health Center of The Cypress. His wife of 63 years, Mary Britton Williams, was at his side. He was 87 years old.
A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Christ Episcopal Church, 1412 Providence Road.
“He was as steady as a rock,” said Sue Coonen, a longtime St. Peter’s member. “He was unflappable no matter what the situation.”
When Williams’ youngest son, Tom, fainted while serving at the altar one day, the rector continued the service unfazed. And when criticism rained on St. Peter’s in the 1980s from those who felt its soup kitchen on North Tryon Street detracted from revitalizing uptown, he defended the church’s mission both to feed the hungry and to make homelessness visible to the wider community.
“He was at ease with himself, comfortable in his own skin,” said his son, Tom Williams, who is director of corporate media relations at Duke Energy. “He could talk to a CEO, or a street person, or the bluebloods in Baltimore where he grew up.”
Williams’ experience in World War II turned him to the ministry. After one semester at Harvard University, the 19-year-old volunteered for the Army. He served with the 87th Infantry of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp.
He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Infantry Badge.
“He saw a lot of pretty tough stuff,” son Tom said.
As did other soldiers in the European theater, the elder Williams received notice that he was headed to Japan. Then the war ended. He felt he had gotten a second chance, one he did not expect.
After graduating from Harvard in 1949, he went to Virginia Theological Seminary and served churches in New York and Maryland, as well as St. Timothy’s in Winston-Salem, before being called to St. Peter’s. He arrived with his wife, Mary, and four children: Sarah, Huntington III, Wells and Tom.
The church’s previous rector had preached segregation from the pulpit. The bishop at the time wanted someone with progressive views to lead Charlotte’s oldest Episcopal church, an historic congregation that founded hospitals and an orphanage, and where Jefferson Davis and members of the Confederate Cabinet worshipped at the close of the Civil War.
Williams’ beginnings at St. Peter’s in the 1960s did not always go smoothly. Some members left. In addition to a new commitment to integration, the church, having lost parishioners to suburban houses of worship, had to find a new role. Other churches facing this challenge chose to leave uptown.
Williams saw an urban church as “a place for real Christian witness.”
Toni Moore, a retired teacher and one of the first African-Americans involved at St. Peter’s, remembered Williams’ warmth. “He was very, very welcoming, just wonderful.”
Said Sue Coonen, “His real contribution was helping us with integration. Hunt prepared us for where we are now.”
St. Peter’s, with about 900 members, in September called its first African-American rector, the Rev. Ollie Rencher.
In 1970, when school desegregation divided Charlotte, Williams joined three other ministers in a quiet march in front of the Education Center with signs that read “Calm Our Fears” and “We Need Help, Lord.”
The soup kitchen was started by parishioners when Williams was on sabbatical, but he embraced it. Other churches became involved, serving a simple meal of soup, a sandwich and coffee. It has since evolved into the Urban Ministry Center on North College Street.
Joining in the fun
Somehow the title “Right Reverend” and the description “suffragan (assistant) bishop” – or even his full name, Huntington Williams Jr. – did not catch his sense of fun. He and his wife, both enthusiastic travelers, returned from a trip to Bermuda and bought mopeds (his red, hers blue), on which they zipped around town.
Saving gas was only part of it.
He liked to laugh, hamming it up as a wise man in a Christmas pageant.
During a public interview while a candidate for bishop, he was asked how a priest from a big urban church could relate to small rural churches.
“I like barbecue,” Williams replied without missing a beat, drawing appreciative laughter.
True to his word, after driving to churches for visits as bishop, he contrived to stop in Lexington for a sandwich or a plate on the way back to Raleigh. He retired in 1996 and moved back to Charlotte.
The twinkle did not fade. Sitting with “Pop” toward the end, Tom Williams remembered a song he’d learned in school, the “Johnny Appleseed” song, and began to sing it.
Lying on his bed, Hunt Williams joined in.
“The Lord’s been good to me, and so I thank the Lord …”