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Subject: Bishop Walter Dennis, 70, Top Aide in Episcopal Diocese

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Date Posted: April 03, 2003 4:47:09 EDT

Walter Decoster Dennis, a retired suffragan bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, as well as a lawyer and a civil rights advocate, died on Sunday in Hampton, Va. He was 70.

The cause was an embolism, the diocese announced.

When elected suffragan bishop, or principal aide to the bishop, in 1979, Bishop Dennis was the second African-American to fill that post in the 200-year history of the diocese, the diocese said.

After graduating from Virginia State University, New York University and General Theological Seminar, Bishop Dennis was ordained a deacon in 1956.

That same year he was the first African-American clergyman to be hired full time by the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.

From 1960 to 1965, he served as vicar of St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church in Hampton, Va., while also teaching as an adjunct professor of constitutional law and American history at Hampton University. During his ministry, St. Cyprian's became a stopover point for church members heading south in the desegregation fight.

He returned to St. John the Divine as a canon residentiary in 1965 and became involved with racial and social issues. He was a founding member of the Union of Black Episcopalians and of the Guild of St. Ives, an association of Episcopal clergy members and lawyers who gave legal advice to the poor over matters of church concern.

After becoming suffragan bishop, he was especially involved in issues concerning individual rights. Bishop Dennis served on the boards of Planned Parenthood, the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity and the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

He was born in Washington on Aug. 23, 1932. He retired in 1998 and moved back to Hampton, Va. He had no immediate survivors.

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