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A healing spirit

St. Mary's church members say the Rev. William McLean was the perfect choice to help their hurting church.

By AMY SCHERZER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 6, 2002


[Times photo: Ken Helle]
The Rev. William McLean III talks with the children of St. Mary's during a recent service. McLean came out of retirement in mid April to take over St. Mary's as interim rector.
CULBREATH HEIGHTS -- Most days, silence fills the front office of St. Mary's Episcopal Church. A part-time administrator handles the work of four employees laid off last spring. When needed, volunteers help out. The organist takes on teaching duties.

Sunday morning attendance hovers at 130 in the new, $2.6-million sanctuary near the corner of Henderson Boulevard and San Miguel Street.

Some 400 seats sit empty. With weekly collection baskets half what they once were, the church uses reserves to get through the year. A $1-million debt remains in the capital campaign.

This is the church the Rev. William McLean III came to heal after the Rev. Kevin Donlon renounced his Episcopal vows and resigned the pulpit April 21 amid charges of inappropriate behavior.

More than half of St. Mary's 500 congregants left with Donlon to start a new church.

The rift divided families. Husbands and wives found themselves on opposite sides of the controversy. So did grandparents, in-laws, siblings and even teenagers. Lifelong friendships ended abruptly.

"We've run every gamut of emotion from sadness to anger to relief," said Betsy Rogers, altar guild chairwoman and office volunteer. "Basically, people who left felt very passionate about it."

Father McLean, 66, knows about torturous breakups. Twelve years ago, amid a lifelong struggle with alcoholism, he separated from his wife of 30 years, Leslie. Their divorce became final in 1992. In the two years between separation and divorce, he sought sobriety. But the damage was done.

For a decade, he lived alone, desperate to redeem himself in the eyes of the church and the woman he loved.

He says he has been sober since August 1991.

He asked Leslie for a second chance, and in March of this year, they remarried.

Some see his healing as heaven sent.

"He's exactly what St. Mary's needed at this moment," said Matt Valaes, church treasurer and one of the members who complained about Donlon.

"And St. Mary's is very much what he needed right now. Something tells me, just maybe, he needed one more opportunity for an Episcopal church to benefit from his experiences."

McLean said his divorce helped him to understand St. Mary's heartache.

Murray Pascual, a member since the early '60s, doesn't doubt that. People are comfortable around McLean, Pascual said.

"The schism in his own life, perhaps this makes him more sensitive to it," Pascual said. "He's the most natural and most approachable rector we've had since Rev. John Mangrum."

Pascual, like many of St. Mary's congregants, prefers to look to the future, instead of dwelling on the church's troubled past.

"We're few, like the Marines, but we're steady and happy," he said.

Although he calls the situation "mixed up and sad," Pascual maintains the congregation has grown stronger. "It's a happy, compatible church, no mumbling or grumbling underneath," said Pascual.

Instead, says longtime member Linda Hanna, a South Tampa lawyer, the people of St. Mary's seem to appreciate one another.

"Once those who were unhappy left, it became very peaceful," she said. "It was like the breath of the Holy Spirit, a congregation really united in purpose."

* * *

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
A sparse congregation worships in the new, $2.6-million sanctuary at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Tampa on a recent Sunday. The church's membership hovers at about 130, less than half what it was a year ago.
McLean has tried to help his church members work through their anger and toward acceptance. The anger goes back to early February when four St. Mary's couples, including two senior wardens, accused Donlon of conduct unbecoming a clergyman.

Speculation and gossip raced through South Tampa, but Bishop John Lipscomb wouldn't detail the allegations publicly.

Meanwhile, Donlon, 46, posted them on the Internet.

Church members said he had gotten too close to a female youth minister. They stopped short of calling the relationship romantic. They said he had disclosed privileged communications and accused him of vindictiveness, lying and dishonesty.

Donlon denies an improper relationship and calls the allegation "preposterous." He admits only to conflicts with the headmaster of the church school.

Bishop John Lipscomb banned Donlon from ministerial duties for 90 days, with pay, while a church investigation took place.

"He had no patience for that," said McLean. "Rather than face it, he jumped ship."

In Donlon's view, the church's discipline canon is flawed.

"You're guilty until proven innocent," he said.

Under his care, St. Mary's tripled its membership, he said. The budget nearly quadrupled, from $157,000 to $620,000.

He led a $10-million building campaign for the new sanctuary and expanded school.

But bricks and mortar don't make a congregation. Nine of 12 vestry members left the old church to join the new one.

"That new building didn't mean a hill of beans to them," Donlon said.

At the end of March, Donlon and seven former St. Mary's leaders traveled to Pawley's Island, S.C., where an archbishop accepted Donlon as a minister of the Anglican Mission. The Church of the Resurrection would become the fifth Anglican Mission church in Florida.

* * *

McLean came out of retirement in mid April to take over St. Mary's as interim rector.

He was born into a family of Episcopal priests. As a young seminary student, he used to chauffeur his wife's grandfather, an assistant bishop, around Chicago.

He and his wife raised three kids together in Barrington, Ill., where he was rector for 12 years. He recalls happy times, along with the difficult ones.

He also recalls ambition.

Fifteen times, from 1972 to 1990, McLean was nominated for bishop. Five times, he was a finalist. He interviewed for the title from New York to Oregon but never made the final cut.

The failures fueled his unhappiness.

"I came back from the last failed election for the diocese of Arizona and started coming apart," he said.

In 1986, the McLeans packed up and moved to Siesta Key for a fresh start. McLean took over St. Boniface Parish with high expectations that quickly crumbled.

His wife missed her friends. McLean was miserable. Their marriage was falling apart.

The vestry, the church's board of trustees, noted his drinking and asked him to resign.

McLean fell hard and landed in LaBelle, Fla. In 1993, his new church consisted of a doublewide trailer and nine congregants.

"I took this as punishment for the mess I made of my priestly life," he said.

In retrospect, he believes the assignment saved his life.

He spent seven years in LaBelle, which he describes as "a town of 4,500 people and 43 churches." When he left, his mission served 250 people in two buildings on 8 acres.

"My sentence, my punishment, turned out to be my resurrection," he said.

By the time he retired Jan. 1, he had significantly improved his standing with church leaders -- and with his wife.

He continues to rebuild his marriage while helping St. Mary's congregants to rebuild their parish.

"Both are going well, the remarriage and the rebirth of the church," McLean said. "Patience is the key word."

-- Amy Scherzer can be reached at 226-3332 or scherzer@sptimes.com.

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