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Rev. Elton O. Smith Jr., 89, dean of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, religious leader

June 13, 1929 — Nov. 17, 2018

The Very Rev. Elton O. Smith Jr., longtime dean of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Buffalo — and one of the area’s most influential religious leaders — died Nov. 17 in Beechwood Continuing Care in Amherst. He was 89.

Rev. Smith was the second longest-serving dean at St. Paul’s, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York.

He led the cathedral for 26 years, before retiring in 1994 and taking a post at the Episcopal church's Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

He was a founder and first president of Buffalo Area Metropolitan Ministries — which included religious leaders of many faiths and played a major role in the integration of Buffalo schools in the 1970s.

Dean Elton O. Smith at his desk in St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. (Buffalo News file photo)

Born in Springfield, Mo., Elton Osman Smith Jr. graduated cum laude from Drury College, now Drury University, in Springfield in 1950, where he was student body president. After graduation, he served for a year as assistant to the college president.

He was drafted into the Army in 1951, saw combat as a sergeant major in an engineering battalion with the Second Infantry Division in Korea and was awarded the Bronze Star.

He told The Buffalo News in 1968 that he decided to enter the priesthood while in the Army.

"I originally intended to go to law school," he said, "but I didn't have the money. I decided the priesthood offered me a chance to use my energies and talents and tie my life together."

He attended the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, Switzerland, for two years, then received a master's degree in sacred theology from General Theological Seminary in New York City.

He was ordained into the Episcopal priesthood in 1956 and assigned to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lee’s Summit, Mo., a suburb of Kansas City.

As that church’s first full-time vicar and rector, he saw the congregation grow from 21 members to more than 200, then was appointed rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City in 1962.

Rev. Smith was ecumenical officer for the Diocese of West Missouri and helped develop a successor to the city’s Council of Churches, the Metropolitan Interchurch Agency, which included Roman Catholic churches and was more deeply involved with social issues.

Elected dean of the Buffalo cathedral in 1968, he headed the diocesan committee that founded St. Augustine’s Center, which provided social, health and educational services on Buffalo’s East Side, and served as its president.

He was three-term president of Child and Family Services and vice president of the Downtown Mall Management Corp. He was a director of the United Way and a trustee of several other community organizations.

He was instrumental in developing Cathedral Park, adjacent to St. Paul’s.

He raised nearly $2 million to renovate the cathedral and oversaw its National Historic Landmark designation in 1987.

Upon his retirement from St. Paul’s, then-Episcopal Bishop David C. Bowman told News religion reporter David Condren that Dean Smith’s greatest achievement was turning the cathedral parish “into a community of faith.”

He upgraded the music, the liturgy and the quality of the sermons and made the cathedral a meeting place for community, social services and support groups.

“He has never grown complacent … in that position as long as he has held it,” Bishop Bowman said. “He has found new energy in the new challenges he has found in the cathedral and I have always admired that.”

He received a special citation from the New York State Assembly and honorary doctorate from Medaille College. He received an honorary degree from Canisius College and an honorary doctor of divinity degree from General Theological Seminary.

Rev. Smith was a trustee of the National Cathedral Association, a chairman of the North American Cathedral Deans Conference and served for 15 years as a member of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Ecumenical Commission.

He was a clergy deputy to five national General Conventions of the Episcopal Church.

He represented the Episcopal Church for several terms on the governing board of the National Council of Churches and was elected the council’s recording secretary. He served on several ecumenical delegations and panels.

At Washington National Cathedral, he was canon vicar and held other executive positions until 2003. After a year as interim rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Washington’s Georgetown district, he was assistant rector at St. James Episcopal Church in Potomac, Md.

He retired in 2011.

He was married to the former Jill Stoll, also from Springfield, Mo., in 1953. They were divorced in 2001.

Survivors include two sons, David and Philip; a daughter, Alison A. Switzer; 10 grandchildren and a great-grandson.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, in the Bethlehem Chapel in Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

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