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2012 Anniversary Vignette #7
The Very Rev. Dr. Wilbur K. Howard


        Dr. Howard was one of the ministers at Dominion-Chalmers United Church from 1965 to 1970.  It is highly appropriate to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth during Black History Month, 2012.  His story is both informative and inspirational. 

        Wilbur Kenneth Howard was born on 29 February 1912 in Toronto, where he attended Brock Street Public School and Bloor Collegiate.  In 1938, he earned a B.A. at Victoria College and in 1941, a B.D. at Emmanuel College.  He subsequently took post-graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  He received a D.D. from Victoria University in 1969 and an LL.D from the University of Winnipeg in 1975.     

     Little information is available about  Dr. Howard’s family.  His father and brother were railway porters.  As described by his biographer, Rev. Adam Kilner, “the stirrings of his calling came to the young  Wilbur in the form of a white family” who  invited him to their church.


    Wilbur Howard was ordained by the Toronto Conference of the United Church in 1941 but was unable to find a congregation willing to accept a black man as its minister.  Conse-

quently, from 1941 to 1949, he served as Boys’ Work Secretary for the Ontario Religious Education Council. 


In this role, he travelled around Ontario counseling youth leaders and sharing his extensive knowledge.  From 1949 to 1953, he was Christian Education Secretary for Manitoba Conference.  In 1953, he returned to Toronto as     Associate Editor of Sunday School Publications for the United Church of Canada, a role in which he promoted the use of the New Curriculum.

        In 1965, Dominion-Chalmers Church was searching for a third minister to join Dr. A. Frank MacLean and Rev. Douglas Lapp in a team ministry.  Rev. Howard, with his extensive experience in Christian Education, was the unanimous choice of the Pastoral Relations Committee, the Official Board, and then the congregation, which approved the call on 03 February 1965.  On 02 July, he was inducted by the Presbytery into the ministry of Dominion-Chalmers United Church and was warmly welcomed by the congregation. 


    In 1968, Rev. Carl W. Zurbrigg succeeded Rev. Lapp.  In anticipation of Dr. MacLean’s retirement in 1970, meetings were held concerning the advisability of continuing the team ministry model.  Opinions on the matter were sharply divided, and angry words were expressed.  In the midst of this situation, and possibly because of it, Dr. Howard accepted a call to Emmanuel United Church, Ottawa effective 01 December 1970.  The Official Board acknowledged his departure “with regret” but did not mention the honourary Doctor of Divinity he had received from Victoria College.  Several members of Dominion-Chalmers Church followed Dr. Howard to Emmanuel Church.

    From 1972-1973, Dr. Howard was President of the Montreal-Ottawa Conference.  At the 1974 

General Council in Guelph, Ontario, he was elected the 26th Moderator of the United Church of Canada.  Addressing the commissioners after the vote, Dr. Howard reflected on the lack of acceptance he had experienced earlier in his ministry and declared that the decision of the General Council was “a high moment of acceptance”.  


    Dr. Howard’s contributions as Moderator, as well as his pastoral and leadership strengths as recalled by present and former members of Dominion-Chalmers Church, are encapsulated in a statement by Anne Squire, who was Moderator from 1986-1988: “Wilbur Howard was an enigma: a very shy and diffident person who could hold audiences in the palm of his hand; a taciturn listener who could greet unwelcome questions with a deafening silence; a committee member to all appearances asleep in a meeting who could break through the posturing with an intervention with a cutting edge; a preacher who could change a solemn moment into a hilarious one with one of his famous one-liners. 


    Dr. Howard continued to lead services at Emmanuel Church twice each month during his term as Moderator and returned as its full-time minister in 1977.  He retired in 1980.  He developed Parkinson disease in the early 1990s and moved to a retirement home in Toronto.  He was named to the Order of Ontario in 1991.  When he died on 17 April 2001, the Toronto City Council rose to observe a minute of silence in his memory.  At his request, some of his ashes were buried in Beachwood Cemetery, where there is an appropriate marker. 


      In an interview published at the time of his retirement in 1980, Dr. Howard emphasized the need for greater cooperation among all religions, his concerns about ecology, and the responsibility to address the needs of underdeveloped nations.  He was a prophet ahead of his time.