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March 28, 2020
A Tribute to The Rev. William Barnwell

by Gretchen Smith, a Member of the Episcopal Church on Edisto (from Facebook)

To my fellow parishioners,

It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that our friend, Rev. William Barnwell, passed away yesterday in New Orleans due to the corona virus. William was an Episcopal priest with many ties to South Carolina as well as to Edisto.

William was born and raised in Charleston, and I first met him when he became our priest in Conway when I was about 15 years old. Not only did he officiate at my wedding, but he also gave me my first job, which was as a counselor and English teacher at a summer school camp at Pawley’s Island for Black youth from South Carolina’s inner cities. This was in 1968, when segregation was the rule of the day. Together, William and I and other staff members took our kids for their first trip to the ocean and integrated the beach at Pawley’s.

William Barnwell stood in the vanguard of the Civil Rights movement and never shied away from doing the right thing. This was never easy in South Carolina at that time, and especially challenging in a small town like Conway. William was a “liberal’s liberal”, which I believe is just one of the many reasons my parents adored him. The three of them truly walked the walk. He was a wonderful role model for me, and I will be forever grateful to have known him - especially during my impressionable years.

Time took William from Conway to a series of churches in other towns, including Columbia, Washington, DC (where Betsy and Thad knew him), and finally to New Orleans as his last stop. He also wrote several books, two of which I own and treasure.

Now, for the Edisto connection.

For many years, William and his family came to our island for their summer vacation. When the local Episcopal split occurred, William kindly offered to conduct our Sunday service while he was here and refused the compensation that was typically given to our supply priests. He also spent time after the services to have a group discussion with us and always inspired us with words of encouragement and hope. He was a beacon for us during often discouraging times, and we looked forward to his annual return.

My heart breaks over the loss of this special man, and consider him to have been a blessing in my life and the life of the Episcopal Church on Edisto. His was a life well lived and a race well run. He was truly a good and faithful servant. Godspeed, my friend.

Gretchen Smith

South Carolina Episcopalians

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