The Rt. Rev. Orris G. Walker Jr., the first black elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, who ushered in an era of ordaining women to the priesthood and weathered public controversies, has died. He was 72.
Walker died Saturday at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, said Bishop Lawrence C. Provenzano, who in 2009 succeeded Walker as head of the 50,000-member diocese, which includes 137 parishes in Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau and Suffolk counties. Walker's "episcopate championed the cause of full inclusion of women in the ordained ministry of the diocese," Provenzano said. "He was the first to ordain women in the diocese and was responsible for facilitating the full inclusion and participation of women in all aspects of diocesan life."
Robert Fardella, chancellor, or chief legal officer of the diocese, said Walker "always saw his role as moving the church forward, doing the right thing. He was a terrific guy. He was decent, kind, caring, faithful."
Walker, the head of the diocese for two decades, was elected coadjutor of the diocese in 1989, sharing leadership with then-Bishop Robert C. Witcher before taking over fully in 1991. Most dioceses in the United States had already ordained women, and Walker moved quickly to follow suit, doing so as coadjutor even though Witcher opposed the move, Fardella said.
As the diocese's first black bishop, Walker had a "tremendous" impact, Provenzano said. "A large portion of our diocese was struggling with issues of racial equality. For the diocese to have selected a black bishop was a bold and very encouraging statement for the life of the church."
Walker played a key role in promoting the role of the laity in the church, as well, appointing as many lay people as he could to diocesan committees, Provenzano said. In 2004, he backed the controversial election of a gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire. He also guided two medical facilities in the diocese to fiscal recovery.
Walker also faced turbulence as bishop.
He confronted controversies including the firing in 2004 of Dean James Cardone, the priest stationed at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, less than a month after Cardone's son died on a Navy frigate in Japan.
Walker had clashed with Cardone over several issues including budget cuts at the church. Cardone accused Walker of ruling the diocese in a heavy-handed manner.
Walker was born in Baltimore, and in 1964 graduated from the University of Maryland with degrees in political science and philosophy. He was ordained to the diaconate in 1968 and served in Kansas City, Missouri.
In 1969 he was ordained to the priesthood, and by 1971 was serving as associate rector and then rector of two merged churches in Detroit. After his retirement in 2009, Walker returned to Detroit.
"He was a phenomenally gifted parish priest with a spring in his step," said Richard Simpson, pastor of St. Mark's Church in Islip, who worked near Walker at the time. "He was beloved and grew the parish and people took notice of his good work."
The names of survivors were not immediately available. A Requiem Mass will be offered at Christ Church in Detroit on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. A memorial service will be held March 21 at 11 a.m. at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City.