Kelly, Leontine 1920–
Leontine Kelly 1920–
A highly respected religious leader, Leontine Kelly was the first African-American woman to be elected bishop of a prominent Christian denomination. The Methodist church approved the ordination of women as ministers in 1956, and in 1984 Kelly, at the age of 64, was elected bishop, becoming only the second woman and first African-American Methodist bishop. Her duties included supervising the California and Nevada conferences of the United Methodist church, which consisted of approximately 100,000 members.
Born to the Reverend David DeWitt Turpeau, Sr. and Ila (Marshall) Turpeau in Washington, D.C. on March 5, 1920, Leontine was the seventh of eight children. The Turpeau family left Washington, D.C., lived in Pittsburgh for two years, and then settled in Cincinnati by the time Leontine was ten years old. Leontine’s father was an ordained Methodist Episcopal minister who served as the district superintendent, a post that is one rank below bishop. Her mother, Ila, a community leader and a co-founder of the Urban League in Cincinnati, was the first African American to have served on the Cincinnati Camp Fire Girls Committee. In 1970 the Cincinnati Enquirer named Ila one of the outstanding women of the year. Both parents were supporters of the NAACP and worked hard to develop a dialogue between segregated communities.
It was in Cincinnati that Kelly first learned that the role of the church extended beyond providing a place for people to gather and worship. She also learned that the parsonage in which the family lived had been a station on the Underground Railroad, and still contained the tunnel that led to the church. Her father was an role model to Kelly. A dedicated man who felt that it was the duty of all Christians to be socially and politically active, Reverend Turpeau always supported political, cultural, and economic activities in the communities where he worked as a pastor. Although the religious community in which Kelly grew up was segregated, her father insisted that it was the duty of the African-American churchgoers to be, according to africanpubs.com, “racial missionaries” to white churches, and to act as positive role models to facilitate a change in attitude toward the African-American community.
Kelly attended the Harriet Beecher Stowe School, where Jennie D. Porter was principal. Porter was the first African-American principal in Cincinnati and the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati. Her message to the schoolchildren was that gender and race are not and should not be barriers to success. As a young woman, Kelly also admired Mary McLeod Bethune, and as an adult woman she modeled herself after Bethune by using her position of authority to educate.
After attending Woodward High School, Kelly went to West Virginia State College. Having completed her junior year, she quit school, married Gloster Bryant Current, and started a family. Current was a religious man who, before marriage, played in and directed his own orchestra. Following his marriage to Kelly, he held various posts for the NAACP, and worked as an assistant pastor in two United Methodist churches. In the mid-1950s, Kelly and her husband divorced.
Born Leontine Turpeau on March 5, 1920, in Washington, D.C.; married Gloster Bryant Current (divorced); married James David Kelly, 1958; children: Angella Patricia Current, Gloster Bryant Current, Jr., John David Current, Pamela Kelly (adopted). Religion: Methodist Episcopal,
Career: Schoolteacher; Virginia Conference Council on Ministries, staff member; Asbury Hill United Methodist Church, Richmond, VA, pastor, 1976-83; United Methodist Church, Nashville, TN, national staff, 1983-84; California-Nevada Conference, San Francisco, CA, bishop, 1984-89.
Awards: Grass Root Leadership Award (SCLC), 1981; honorary doctorate, Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, 1984.
Deeply affected by the divorce, Kelly turned to meditation and Bible study, which considerably strengthened her faith.
In 1956 Leontine married James David Kelly, a Methodist minister. Two years later, the family moved to Richmond, Virginia, where Kelly completed her B.A. at Virginia Union University. She became a social studies teacher and a lay speaker in the Methodist church. In 1966 the Kelly family moved to Edwardsville, Virginia, where the Galilee United Methodist Church had hired James. Kelly herself was very active in the church and became a popular speaker. When James Kelly died, in 1969, the congregation of Galilee Church asked Leontine, to her surprise, to take her husband’s place. Until that time, Kelly had never considered joining the ministry even though she had been surrounded by pastors all her life.
Kelly accepted the challenge and began theological studies, receiving her masters of divinity degree from the Union Theological Seminary, in Richmond, in 1976. During her studies Kelly remained at the Galilee church until 1975 when she became the director of social ministries for the Virginia Conference Council of Ministries. In 1977 she was appointed pastor of Asbury Hill United Methodist Church, where she stayed until 1983. During her time at Asbury Hill, the congregation doubled. She became a member of the national staff of the United Methodist Church and served as the Board of Discipleship’s evangelism executive.
Only highly esteemed ministers are considered for the position of bishop, and Kelly’s years in the ministry, as well as her years serving as a national staff member made her an excellent candidate. She was first identified in 1982 as a likely successor to the first female bishop, Marjorie Swank Matthews, who was, according to church rules, expected to retire in 1984. In 1984 Kelly was nominated for, and elected bishop. She also made history by being one of two or three bishops to have been, according to africanpubs.com, “elected bishop by one jurisdiction while serving as a member in a different jurisdiction.”
Kelly retired as bishop in 1988, after four years of service. In 2000 Kelly was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Her adopted daughter, Pamela Kelly, nominated Kelly for the honor. Also in 2000 in honor of Kelly’s eightieth birthday, the family established a scholarship fund at United Methodist-related Africa University in her name. In a speech at the 15th World Conference, Bishop Desmond Tutu, according to africanpubs.com, said the following about Kelly: “I would like to give you one very good theological reason why women ought not to be ordained, least of all made bishops. It is Bishop Kelly. She was superb … She really made men understand why women say that when God created man she was experimenting!”
—Christine Miner Minderovic
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