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Sean Kirst: From WNY to Windsor Castle, preparing to preach at royal wedding

Josephine Robbins was sitting Monday in her parked car on the East Side, about to attend a friend's funeral at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church on Cedar Street, when her phone started buzzing. She picked it up and listened as the voice on the other end, a friend she has known and loved since he was a 10-year-old, kept apologizing, feeling badly she had not learned some monumental news from him firsthand.

"It's fine," she told him, moved by a deeper truth.

To Robbins, 83, it means everything that Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Bruce Curry took the time early in the week to call her at all. He is busy preparing a wedding sermon that will be heard Saturday by an audience that includes Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, a monarch who will almost certainly be seated close enough to catch his eye.

Curry, 65, is presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, the U.S.-based member church of the international Anglican Communion, whose mother church is the Church of England.

He is also a guy who spent much of his childhood in Buffalo and attended Hutchinson-Central Technical High School, a guy identified as a fervent Bills fan by Neva Rae Fox, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church.

Even before last weekend, Curry had established himself as an extraordinarily accomplished graduate of the Buffalo city schools. Yet that name recognition climbed in the past few days to a different level, once Kensington Palace announced in a tweet that Curry will offer a sermon during Saturday's Windsor Castle wedding of Meghan Markle, an American, and Prince Harry, of England's royal family.

In a separate tweet, Justin Welby, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, described Curry as "a brilliant pastor, stunning preacher and someone with a great gift for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ."

Robbins, certainly, would agree with that assessment. She saw those skills as they began to crystallize. Still, when she thinks of Curry, her first thoughts are not of a powerful speaker or an internationally prominent religious leader.

She thinks instead of a little boy in the seat next to her on a city bus, a little boy who was missing his mother.

Josephine Robbins, at the St. Philip's Episcopal Church Parish Hall, where she has volunteered in the office for as long as she can remember. Robbins played a major role in the life of Bishop Michael Curry, who will offer the sermon at Saturday's royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Curry, born in Chicago, was only a child when his father, the Rev. Kenneth Curry, became rector of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Buffalo. In the early 1960s, Curry's mother, Dorothy Curry, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage during a family vacation. She was hospitalized in Yonkers, Robbins said, where she was far too fragile to be moved.

Kenneth Curry would handle his congregational duties every weekend in Buffalo. Then he would travel to Yonkers to spend most of the week at the bedside of his wife. The burden was eased by such friends and parishioners as Dr. Benjamin Bullock, a dentist, and his wife, Emma, who opened their home to the children while Curry was gone.

Robbins was a relative newcomer to Buffalo, a teacher in the city schools and a parishioner at St. Philip's. Kenneth Curry asked if she would be able to help look out for Michael and Sharon, and Robbins said of course.

Buffalo-born bishop now leads U.S. Episcopal Church

"He was an excellent father," Robbins said, "who always took such good care of their children."

She did everything she could to bring some joy into their lives. They would go out for hot dogs on Sunday afternoons on Sheridan Drive. During the week they would often climb onto a city bus and ride to the W.T. Grant store downtown. The children loved the section with parakeets and hamsters and other animals, a part of the store they remembered visiting with their mother.

Dorothy Curry died without ever regaining consciousness, and Robbins essentially became a member of the household. She often tells the story of Michael, as a child, setting up chairs in the attic of the family home, with Sharon's dolls as a make-believe congregation. He would pretend to be a priest, saying Mass.

Robbins was there for almost every graduation or major event in the children's lives. She remembers once – when Michael and Sharon were teenagers, and they wanted to visit a childhood friend at Annapolis – Kenneth Curry said it was fine, but only on one condition:

They could go, but only if Robbins went with them.

So she did. That connection never ended. Robbins recalls how Curry studied for the priesthood, even though his father thought he should choose another career. She was there when Curry was ordained in this city in 1978, and she was at the National Cathedral in 2015 when he was installed as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Robbins, in the first pew, was a prominent figure in a Washington Post image of that service.

Josephine Robbins, in the blue, can be seen to the left during the 2015 installation of Bishop Michael Curry as presiding bishop for the Episcopalian Church at the National Cathedral. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/Washington Post via Getty Images)

She recalls the elder Curry, who died in 1990, as a religious leader, a city administrator and a voice of conscience in Buffalo.

"His father was a gifted person, a great teacher," said George Arthur, former Common Council president, who remembers how Kenneth Curry worked tirelessly to bring down barriers in a city whose African-American community had been isolated for many years.

Robbins, too, was a witness to an era of great change. She was born in North Carolina, amid a time of harsh and legal Jim Crow segregation. She was raised by her grandmother, Lucy Hunter, a woman Robbins described as a visionary.

"I never stop thinking of her," Robbins said.

Buoyed by such strength in her own house, Robbins earned a one-year scholarship to Bennett College, a historically black college in Greensboro, N.C. Her grandmother hated to see her leave home, but Robbins was driven. Her grades were so high that her scholarship was renewed and it paid her way through college, before she spent a year participating in a National Science Foundation project at Brown University.

From there, she traveled to Buffalo to visit Constance and Arthur Eve, old friends who became monumental in the city. It was Arthur Eve who encouraged her to apply for a teaching job in Buffalo. Robbins went on to serve as a school principal and a pioneering figure in supporting and educating teen mothers.

The Eves were also parishioners at St. Philip's, where Robbins made the acquaintance of a rector with two young children, including a curious little boy with a dynamic personality.

"Michael then," Robbins said, "was much like Michael now."

To George Arthur, at 84, the story has profound meaning. Michael Curry was raised in the heart of Buffalo, a child of the city schools, amid a time of national transformation. Ordained here as a priest, he is now the first African-American presiding bishop to lead the Episcopal church.

Saturday, he will offer a sermon at a royal wedding, a message on faith and conscience that will be heard throughout the world.

"The world," Arthur repeated, in a quiet voice.

To him, it is evidence of a truth that will determine the future of the city. "It just goes to show," he said, "that if you take a child, and you show love for them, concern for them, you mentor them, you care for them, amazing things can happen."

As for Robbins, sitting in that car Monday morning, she told Michael Curry she had to leave, because her friend's funeral was about to start. He said he understood, but the conversation – for one last moment – returned to the impending royal wedding. Robbins said, "Michael, I can't believe it."

The guy she will always see as that child on a bus in Buffalo, the one who will now speak to that selfless kind of love before a queen, laughed and said, "I can't believe it, either."

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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