The Rev. William P. Richardson, Jr. was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on February 2, 1909. He was the eldest child born to a newlywed, older couple—a 40-year-old mother and a 58-year-old father. His great-great-grandfather was Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first governor.
Bill began life as a sickly child; the lack of youthful activity led to an early life of contemplation. He also knew there was something sexually different about himself, but he couldn't yet understand what it was. He had his calling to the ministry about the age of fourteen. He studied at the University of the South in Sewanee and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky. He received his seminary training at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1935.
Richardson served as priest at St. Matthew’s Church, Rochester, New York, until 1941; All Saints’ Church, Pontiac, Michigan until 1944; and then Grace Episcopal & St. James Churches in Pentwater, Michigan. In 1943, at the age of 34, he married Mary Griffin Lathan of Birmingham, Michigan. They had two children, Thomas and Ann.
Tiring of the frigid winters of the north, Richardson and his family moved to New Orleans in 1953 where he became rector of St. George's Episcopal Church at 4600 St. Charles Avenue. When he arrived the church was in a state of neglect and much need of repairs. It had fewer confirmations and greater number of funerals to its credit. Under “Father Bill’s” gentle pastoral nurturing and leadership, the congregation and the structure were rebuilt and strengthened over the years that followed.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Richardson stood up to parishioners who wanted to bar African-Americans. His daughter, Ann Richardson Berkey, recalled: "He stood at the door to make sure no one blocked anyone who wanted to come in and worship God. He was a small man, maybe five-three, but he wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to come in, could come in." She also noted that he not only gave money to beggars on the street but also invited them into the rectory. "People came to the house asking for a handout, and he asked them in for dinner and maybe to stay a night or two. He believed we were all God's children."
In 1963, his wife tragically died from a blood clot in her heart. In grieving and in reflecting on his deep abiding love for his wife and himself, he gradually began to come to terms with being bisexual. In 1971 he participated in a summer seminar on “Homosexuality, Women’s Liberation and Communal Living” at General Theological Seminary. He later wrote: “I returned home…determined to do all in my power to support lesbians and gay men.”
Richardson reached out to help the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of New Orleans Mission when it needed a temporary place of worship in 1972. He stood his ground against the Vestry and some homophobic persons in the congregation to allow the small MCC congregation to worship for about six months in St. George’s small chapel, located above the main church's sacristy with a separate entrance from the main church.
At 1:00 a.m. June 25, 1973, he received a telephone call in which he misunderstood that his friend, "MCC Deacon Bill Larson had died in a fire, upstairs at home." Shocked and distressed through the night, it wasn't until next morning that he realized the enormity of the tragedy when he read the morning paper with gruesome photographs announcing the deaths of 29 people at the Upstairs Lounge. He then received another call asking him to hold a memorial service that evening. Recognizing the importance of providing a religious setting where the grief-stricken mourners could grieve in a private, personal way and that the MCC worship hall was much too small, he hosted a memorial service in the St. George’s sanctuary that night. Afterwards, he was admonished by the Right Rev. Iverson B. Noland, the Episcopalian Bishop of Louisiana, and by some members of his Vestry for doing this.
Three days later, Richardson wrote an open letter to his congregation, providing the theological and ministry rationale for the memorial service and concluded by stating: “If any considerable number of St. George’s members still feel that our Church is to minister only to the select few, and not to the whole community, then I shall seriously consider resigning as your Rector…”
He provided educational literature and books regarding LGBT sexuality in the church’s bookstore. He wrote many letters to the New Orleans newspapers decrying homophobia and male chauvinism. Year after year, he presented a resolution to the annual meeting of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana calling on the church to welcome lesbians and gay men.
His activism earned him a place of civic recognition in the community. He helped found St. George's Episcopal School and was vice chairman of Operation Upgrade, a local literacy program. He also served on the boards of several area church and community organizations. On several occasions he led groups of high school students on tour through Europe. Having an understanding of communal living, Father Bill provided room and board for Hindu and Muslim college students. He was an artist who loved indulging in the medium of oil painting.
After serving at St. George’s for 23 years, Richardson retired on February 15, 1976. Even in retirement, his daughter said, he never stopped practicing his vocation. "He said, 'I'm always a priest, Ann. I'll be a priest until I go to the Father in death.' . . . He was a Christian to the core, and he believed Christianity was all about helping others."
During his 30+ years of retirement, Richardson was a chaplain aboard the Queen Elizabeth II and also interim rector for churches in London and Hawaii. He also was a priest associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, an order of Episcopal monks. In his waning years, he moved with his companion to a condominium in the adjoining city of Metairie, Louisiana. In October, 2007, he died at the age of 98.
(This statement was written by Mark Bowman with information from The Times-Picayune obituary, October 5, 2007, and retirement story, February 7, 1976; Rebels, Rubyfruit and Rhinestons by James T. Sears and the personal recollections of Henry Kubicki.)
Biography Date: September, 2013