© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

William G. Gillespie obituary: Renowned pastor and community leader

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2011 - The Rev. Dr. William G. Gillespie, who singlehandedly breathed life back into an abandoned church, developing it into a powerful community resource that spoke to the physical, mental, social and spiritual needs of thousands for more than five decades, died Friday at Barnes-Jewish Hospital of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 80 and had lived in Pasadena Hills for more than 30 years.

Services for Rev. Gillespie will be at 10 a.m., Sat., June 11 at the church he led for 53 years: Cote Brilliante Presbyterian.

Two U.S. Supreme Court cases more than a half-century ago caused Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church to close.

In 1948, the church, which sits at the tip of the Ville neighborhood in north St. Louis, was at the heart of Shelley vs. Kraemer, which struck down restrictive housing covenants. With that decision, whites fled the neighborhood. When Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed school desegregation in 1954, blacks left in search of better schools. Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church, which had anchored the neighborhood since 1885, was left without members and closed on May 27, 1956.

Knocking on Doors

The Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery moved quickly to reopen the church and called on a 25-year-old from a pastorate in Raleigh, N.C. In August 1956, Rev. Gillespie was handed a key to a church with a basement full of water and no congregation. He immediately set about making repairs and knocking on doors to drum up members.

One of those doors belonged to Martin Mathews, the co-founder of Mathews-Dickey Boys' & Girls' Club.

"I lived in his neighborhood and he was going door to door seeking members," Mathews said. "He persuaded people to come and join the church."

The church reopened on Sept. 16, 1956, to people of all races.

"He had the courage and determination to build that church back up and after four or five years, it became a powerful church because of William G. Gillespie," Mathews added, using his friend's full name for emphasis.

Mathews said Rev. Gillespie made the Boys' Club possible.

"I couldn't have gotten from under the shade tree," Mathews said, referring to the place in W.C. Handy Park where he and the club's co-founder, the late Hubert "Dickey" Ballentine, first dreamed of a boys' club.

The fledgling club was first housed in Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church's basement. When the Elijah P. Lovejoy Society awarded Rev. Gillespie $3,000 for his work in the community, he used the money to help the club secure its first facility, a storefront on Shreve and Natural Bridge. It was 1969.

"That was a lot of money at that time," Mathews recalled. "You have to have someone who believes in you, someone who will be in your corner; he was always there for me."

Answering the Call

When the community calls, the black church has always come to the rescue, Rev. Gillespie told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1991.

''When the government talks about volunteerism, many times that falls on the church,'' Rev. Gillespie said. "They say, 'There are hungry people out there, you feed them.'"

He rebuilt Cote Brilliante Presbyterian not only as a place to feed the body and soul but also as a refuge for travelers and a safe haven for children, as a meeting space for social and community organizations and as a place for health and wellness.

As early as 1988, Rev. Gillespie was calling attention to the lack of health care for the working poor. At the time, he noted that only two industrialized countries -- the United States and South Africa -- lacked national health care.

In 2002, he declared the area around his church at Labadie and Marcus "holy ground" as he brought together a coalition of religious organizations that successfully petitioned city officials to begin ridding the neighborhood of abandoned buildings, drug houses and crime.

Rev. Gillespie worked to end problems, but he believed that education could prevent them. In addition to leading his church in support of mentoring programs, youth scholarships and the United Negro College Fund, he became directly involved in furthering higher education for African Americans.

In a statement Monday, Henry Givens Jr., president of Harris-Stowe State University lauded Rev. Gillespie, who was the university's Board of Regents longest serving member.

"(He) was the 'rock' and true foundation of Harris-Stowe State University for over 30 years," Givens said. "Much of the university's outstanding accomplishments must be credited to Rev. Gillespie's strong leadership.

"In fact, he was the driving force behind my appointment as president of Harris-Stowe 32 years ago," Givens added. "Rev. Gillespie provided counsel and spiritual guidance to me personally and also to many great and influential leaders across the city, state and nation."

In 2006, Harris-Stowe named its first on-campus living facility the Rev. Dr. William G. Gillespie Residence Hall and Student Center.

Belief in Justice and Acceptance

Rev. Gillespie, who led a delegation of clergy to Selma, Ala., to march with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1965, preached and practiced justice.

Post-Dispatch interviews over the years chronicled his firm but gentle guidance on some of the most volatile issues in the nation.

He led a crowd in chanting "I believe it is justice," during a 2000 rally in support of a "living wage." The same year, he eulogized Ronald Beasley, a man accidently shot by police.

He said of the 1993 Rodney King verdict: "It was a verdict for law and order that did not meet the standards for justice. It almost made me hang my head." In April 1995, Rev. Gillespie pondered Timothy McVeigh's motives for bombing a federal building in Oklahoma: "Why so much hatred? Why so much rage?" Following the O.J. Simpson verdict later that year, Rev. Gillespie preached "A Time for Healing."

He always promoted understanding and acceptance, which Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation said she experienced firsthand.

"There couldn't have been more things different about us -- gender, faith, race, religion, even age -- and yet he made a very real space for me in his life and in the life of his congregation," Talve said.

"And it couldn't have been easy all the time," she added. "I didn't always know how to walk the path in the holiest of ways. He always taught me. He was probably one of my greatest teachers."

Rev. Gillespie and Talve received Temple Israel's 1994 Malachi Interfaith Award for joining St. Louis public schools in the Joint Venture Mentoring Program at Cote Brilliante Elementary School and for initiating joint interfaith services honoring Dr. King.

It was one of many honors he received, including the St. Louis Globe Democrat's 1982 Humanitarian Award. Under Rev. Gillespie's leadership, Cote Brilliante Presbyterian's "I Dare You" program received $100,000 from the Danforth Foundation in 2001. He received honorary doctorates from Harris-Stowe State University, Tarkio College and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

In addition to the Harris-Stowe residence hall, Cote Brilliante Presbyterian's 38-unit senior citizens residence and its scholarship program are named in honor of Rev. Gillespie. Mathews-Dickey, where he served as board chair for 35 years, will soon establish a scholarship in his name.

Rev. Gillespie had served as moderator of both the Synod of Missouri and the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery. He was nominated moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA, the highest office of the Presbyterian Church.

No Sadness

William George Gillespie was born May 12, 1931, in Knoxville, Tenn. He earned bachelor's degrees from Knoxville College and the John C. Smith Theological Seminary and a master of sacred theology and a doctor of ministry from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. He served as a professor of theology at Lindenwood College and at Johnson C. Smith Seminary in Charlotte, N.C.

Upon his retirement in 2009, with a congregation exceeding 600 and numerous community programs to his credit, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen proclaimed: "The ministry of Rev. Gillespie has no boundaries, for he has been a pastor to all who were in need."

Rev. Gillespie's wife of 59 years, Martha, said: "When you know someone lived a good life and did all they could do, you are not sad (at their passing)." The two had met while college students in Knoxville.

Rev. Gillespie was preceded in death by his parents, Mac and Virginia Gillespie, his son, William Edward Gillespie, and three siblings.

Besides his wife, Rev. Gillespie's survivors include a daughter, Vendetta Dennis, of St. Louis; a son, Harry Gillespie, of Pittsburgh, Pa.; nine grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

Visitation for Rev. Gillespie will be from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Friday, June 10 at Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church, 4673 Labadie, in St. Louis. Services will be at 10 a.m., Saturday June 11 at the same location.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.