Leontine T.C. Kelly dies at 92; first black woman bishop in a major Christian denomination


Leontine T.C. Kelly, a daughter and wife of ministers who followed her own calling and became the first black woman bishop in a major Christian denomination when the United Methodist Church elevated her to the position in 1984, has died. She was 92.

Kelly, who oversaw Northern California and Nevada for the church from 1984 to 1988 while based in San Francisco, died June 28, the denomination announced. She had been in poor health for some time while living at a retirement home in Oakland.

When Kelly was named bishop at age 64, she became only the second woman to hold that post in the United Methodist Church. She also served as president of the denomination’s Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, taking on the duties of chief administrative officer and spiritual leader for the 100,000 members of her flock.

Kelly, who considered herself a social and political activist as well as spiritual leader, supported the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church organization, ministered to AIDS patients and spoke out against nuclear weapons and armed conflict.

“All my life, my political and social and spiritual selves have all moved together,” Kelly told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2002. “I just could not separate them.”

She was born Leontine Turpeau on March 5, 1920, in Washington, D.C., the seventh of eight children, and as a child moved with her family to Cincinnati. Her father, the Rev. David DeWitt Turpeau Sr., was a Methodist Episcopal minister and four-term member of the Ohio Legislature. Her mother, Ila, was an African American activist who co-founded the Urban League in Cincinnati. The family lived in a parsonage that had been a station on the Underground Railroad where slaves fleeing the South would stop for rest.

Kelly enrolled at what is now West Virginia State University but left school to marry Gloster Bryant Current, a bandleader who also worked for the NAACP and as an assistant pastor in the United Methodist Church. They had three children before divorcing.

In 1956 she married James David Kelly, who was an ordained Methodist minister. They moved to Richmond, Va., where he was a pastor and she studied at Virginia Union University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1960. She taught high school history and social studies, and trained to become a lay speaker in the church.

When her husband died in 1969, his congregation asked Kelly to take over his duties. She hesitated but, after deciding that she had a calling to be a minister, returned to school and earned a master of divinity degree from what was then Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. Ordained a deacon in 1972 and an elder in 1977, she led a United Methodist Church in Richmond for six years.

In 1983, Kelly moved into church administration, serving on the national staff of the United Methodist Church’s board of discipleship in Nashville. A year later she was elected bishop after several rounds of voting. She replaced Marjorie S. Matthews, the denomination’s first female bishop, who was retiring.

When asked in 1989 whether Jesus would have wanted women disciples, Kelly had a ready answer.

“We must recognize the kind of culture in which Jesus and his disciples lived,” she told USA Today. “It was a very male-dominated culture. However, Jesus did violate the customs of the culture in that he talked with women, shared with women. Women were part of the entourage of Jesus Christ. God calls whomever God would call.”

After retiring as bishop in 1988, Kelly continued to speak at conferences and taught at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley and the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

She is survived by daughters Angella P. Current Felder and Pamela L. Kelly, sons Gloster B. Current Jr. and the Rev. John D. Current Sr., six grandchildren, a great-grandson and a sister.