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Franklin to become new bishop

Pomp and circumstance fit for royalty will mark the Rev. R. William Franklin's formal introduction to the area this weekend, when he is consecrated and installed as the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York.

But Franklin had been quietly making his presence known among area Episcopalians for several weeks in a more down-to-earth, typical Buffalo fashion -- as a regular at various fish fry dinners during Lent.

"My goal was to try and meet everybody before April 30," said Franklin, a Mississippi-born theologian and expert in church history who today succeeds the retiring Bishop J. Michael Garrison.

Franklin has maintained an office at the diocesan headquarters in the Town of Tonawanda since Feb. 15, and he estimates he already has visited in some form or another about half of the 63 congregations in the seven-county diocese.

He's attended weekend worship, weekday dinners with clergy, deanery committee meetings and, of course, those Friday fish fries -- all in an effort to meet people.

"With the clergy, I just want to know their own journey of their life, and then I want to know what people's hopes and dreams are for the diocese and for the region," he said.

Franklin, 64, was elected last November following seven hours of voting by clergy and laity.

He has been a priest only since 2005, but he brings to Western New York an accomplished academic career, a deep knowledge of Anglican church history and broad experience in lay leadership posts in the church.

After earning a doctoral degree in church history from Harvard University in 1975, Franklin spent nearly 30 years in academia, first at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., and then at the General Theological Seminary in New York City.

The Rev. Gloria E. Payne-Carter, rector of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Buffalo, who studied at General Theological Seminary when Franklin was on the faculty, remembers him as a "tough teacher" and a devoted family man who was "deeply spiritual."

In 1998, Franklin was appointed dean and president of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, a post he resigned in 2002 amid revelations that school funds had been mismanaged and misused, prompting an investigation by the Connecticut state attorney general.

Franklin, who was accused of inappropriately using Berkeley money to pay medical school tuition for his daughter, addressed the issue head-on in his meetings with the diocesan search committee.

"Ultimately, everything I had done was completely exonerated," he said in an interview. "I left because I felt that there needed to be a new beginning."

The search committee researched the episode, which had been a national story in the New York Times, and determined Franklin was not at fault.

The committee did 23 reference checks and interviewed seven people familiar with the situation at Berkeley in its vetting of Franklin's nomination, according to the Rev. Earle King Jr., president of the standing committee for the diocese.

A Berkeley committee also determined in 2002 that Franklin "has acted with the highest standards of personal integrity, and that any report to the contrary is inaccurate." Franklin was later named dean emeritus.

"The standing committee of the Diocese of Western New York has complete confidence in the integrity and honesty of our bishop-elect ," King said in a statement.

Ultimately, Franklin was grateful for the experience because it helped steer him toward the priesthood.

"It was the making of me," he said. "I learned enormous lessons. I learned what it was like to be misunderstood. I learned what it was like to be challenged. I learned what it was like to be questioned. I learned what it was like to deal with the press. I learned what it was like to lead an institution through a difficult period. And I think there could not have been a better preparation for the job of bishop."

He moved to Boston, Mass., in 2003 for a post at Trinity Church, one of the largest Episcopal congregations in the country. When members of the congregation suggested Franklin had a call to the priesthood, he walked into the church to reflect and pray.

"I had this kind of Damascus Road experience like the Apostle Paul," he said. "I really felt sort of shaken to my roots, feeling called to ordained ministry really for the first time."

On his way back to New York City, he wondered exactly what to tell his wife, Carmela Vircillo, a classics professor at Columbia University, but when he explained what happened, she simply said: "I've already come to that conclusion," recalled Franklin.

Franklin was ordained in 2005 by Bishop Mark Sisk of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, who will co-consecrate with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori at today's ceremony at 11 a.m. in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts.

More than 20 bishops from across the country also are expected to be in town as Franklin receives ornate vestments, a bishop's ring and crozier.

Franklin spent much of the past five years in Italy and other parts of Europe, serving as associate director of the American Academy in Rome and a fellow of the Anglican Centre.

Franklin feels a deep and abiding connection to the region, both through his academic studies, which focus on the development of Christianity in industrial cities, and through his own experiences here visiting with family. His wife's parents are longtime residents of North Buffalo.

"I felt it in my bones that I understood the story of this region," said Franklin. "I really have known the city. And why do you fall in love? I love Buffalo."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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