Cromey Online

The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Location: San Francisco, California, United States

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Robert Nelson Willing R.I.P.

This was our first meeting in 1959. He wore a black hat, black suit, white shirt and black tie, socks and shoes. He was a seminarian from Nashotah House, an Episcopal seminary in Wisconsin. Tall blond, handsome with a mischievous smile, he was an high-church Anglo Catholic Episcopalian preparing for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. While he was away at seminary, I had become the rector of The Church of the Holy Nativity in the Bronx, New York City. That was Bob’s sponsoring parish and the church he had grown up in. I was a bit taller and a five years older than he. My churchmanship was broad and hazy, liberal and relaxed. Bob was interested in a firm theology, elaborate liturgy and disciplined spiritual and sacramental life. We could not have been more unlike. We sparred good-naturedly about our differences and became easy and friendly with one another.

It galled Bob a bit at first that I would present him to the Bishop for his ordination as deacon and priest. It was the custom in those days that the rector of the sponsoring parish presented candidates for ordination. He graciously accepted his fate and I gladly presented him for ordination.

He went on to marry, have a family, serve parishes in the inner city of the Bronx. He told me that he trained a young boy named Colin Powell to be an acolyte in his church. (Yes, that Colin Powell.)

Bob became an activist in the civil and Lesbian-gay rights movements. Marched on picket lines and showed up at demonstrations.

He was appointed an Archdeacon of the Diocese of New York where he supervised non-self supporting mission churches in the upper part of the diocese. He ran for Bishop of New York and lost in a close vote. He was ship chaplain on several round-the-world cruises on the Queen Elizabeth2. He taught classes on board in the Old and New Testament and Theology.

I had read of Bob’s career but had lost track of him personally. I met his daughter Terri and her husband Mario here in California where they live in the 1990’s. It was through them Bob and I got in contact by email and resumed a friendship, exchanged ideas, jokes and outrages about republicans. In the late 90’s he visited California to visit Terri and he came to Trinity where I was rector and we had a pleasant lunch together. I could see he was not well and he told me he had cancer.

He loved being a New Yorker. Of German background, he told tales as a young man hanging out in Yorkville, the old German part of Manhattan. His mother was a member of Holy Nativity. She was tall, fair, sturdy and doted on her son, the soon-to-be priest. She was at his ordinations.

Several times when I visited New York we tried to see each other but he was becoming too sick to drive many miles to Manhattan where we were staying. We swapped emails for a few years and then he stopped.

Bob died on February 20, 2009.

Bob was a true human being, priest, father, friend and advocate for the rights of minorities, the poor and homeless. He wore his piety lightly, asked us to pray for him and I know he prayed for us. He wanted a requiem with all the smells and bells of the tradition he loved. His daughter Terri has made it so.

I regret that we had not stayed close over the years. I moved to California and he stayed in the east. I grew to like and love him in our email correspondence and occasional phone calls. I already miss his wit and charm and commitment to the full rights of all people.



Blogger Fr Kevin PJ Coffey said...

Thank you for your remembrance of Bob Willing. I worked with him for a while in the Diocese of New York as part of the Hudson Valley Ministry, a cluster ministry of 6 congregations.
May his memory be a blessing.
+ + + +
Fr Kevin PJ Coffey

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" I already miss his wit and charm and commitment to the full rights of all people."

That says it all. I wish I had known your friend.


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did he also have a daughter Kathleen?

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I was baptized as a Junior High schooler by Fr. Willing at Trinity, Mount Vernon, NY in the early 1970's. Today I am at my current church, Grace & Holy Innocents, Albany, NY and whilst preparing the bulletin for tomorrow's services, I wondered what had ever become of Fr. Willing. I am saddened to learn of his death but rejoice in the knowledge that he has gone home.

Praise God for all that he did during his time with us.

Robert Payne
Sr. Warden & Verger

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