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Who was Bishop Thomas Wright?

Ben Steelman
Bishop Thomas Wright

Hannah Wright (wife of Thomas Wright, far right), General George C. Marshall, his wife Katherine Marshall, and the Right Reverend Thomas H. Wright (Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina) at Greenfield Lake in Wilmington. Taken in conjunction with the 1949 N.C. Azalea Festival. (Photograph by Hugh Morton. Courtesy North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill)

As bishop of East Carolina from 1945 to 1973, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Henry Wright had influence in the Episcopal Church well beyond the boundaries of his diocese. At the time, he was the youngest bishop ever to be consecrated in the American Episcopal Church.

Born Oct. 16, 1904, in Wilmington, he was the youngest son of John Maffitt Wright and Josie Whitaker Wright. His father died of blood poisoning when he was 2 years old.

Young Thomas — who was addressed as “Tommy” by little old ladies in the community, long after he became a bishop — attended public and private schools in his hometown, including Tileston. He was senior class president at New Hanover High School, where he was a member of the first graduating class in 1922.

Wright went on to graduate in 1926 from The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. After working for Standard Oil in Wilmington for a year (his brother, John Laurens Wright, was a Standard Oil executive), he entered the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he became student body president.

In 1929, he was ordained at St. James Church in Wilmington, then went on to serve a network of small Episcopal parishes in Whiteville, Lumberton, Maxton, Laurinburg and Red Springs. His career soon veered onto the fast track. In From 1931 to 1933, he was Episcopal chaplain at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1932, he was Episcopal representative to a World Christian Student Federation conference in the Netherlands

 In 1934, he became rector of Robert E. Lee Memorial Church at Lexington, Va., also serving as chaplain at the Virginia Military Institute. About this time, he also served as secretary for college work for the Episcopal Church’s National Conference.

On Dec. 1, 1937, Wright married Hannah Knowlton of Charlotte. From 1941 to 1943, he was dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, where he presided at the wedding of Madame Chiang Kai-shek‘s brother. From 1943 to 1945, he was rector of St. Mark’s Church in San Antonio, Texas, at a time when that parish had more than 10,000 members.

In 1945, Wright was the sole nominee for the vacant post of bishop of the diocese covering Eastern North Carolina. He was consecrated on Oct. 5, 1945, at St. James Church. Church histories praise Wright for working to heal race relations during his tenure and for increasing the church’s emphasis on missions and social concerns.

From 1960 to 1970, Wright was the national Episcopal Church’s chairman of overseas work. As such, he traveled extensively, from visiting leper colonies in Okinawa to confirming 125 worshipers at an open-air ceremony in Liberia.

He served as Episcopal Visitor to the U.S. Army and Air Force, making him the ecclesiastical superior to Episcopal chaplains in those services. As part of his duties, he toured military bases in South Vietnam with Gen. William Westmoreland and was at the general’s headquarters when a bombing killed 13 people.

He later served as co-chairman of the Inter-Anglican Mutual Responsibility Communion.

The Wrights long lived at 510 Orange St., Wilmington [Map this],  but relocated to Porters Neck in 1966. After his retirement, Wright — who was noted for his wit — remained much in demand as a speaker. He died on April 26, 1997.

A portrait of Wright by Helen Macmillan Lane hangs in the Great Hall at St. James Church.

The bishop’s son, Thomas Henry Wright, was for many years the vice president and general counsel of Princeton University.

Susan Taylor Block, author of “The Wrights of Wilmington,” posted a personal essay about the bishop at her website.

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2 Responses to “ Who was Bishop Thomas Wright?”

  1. On June 2, 2011 at 9:09 am Elsie E. Kirton wrote:

    I happen to come across the article, “Who was Bishop Wright?” My family and I moved to Wilmington in 1951 from New York when my Dad became the rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. From that day forward Bishop Wright was not only our pastoral leader but a member of my family.

    In addition to my parents, he was a mentor for me as I grew up in Wilmington during the years of segregation. I remember with great fondness the love he had for the youth and staff of Oceanside Episcopal Camp. He truly supported the clergy, their families and the laity of the Diocese of East Carolina. I was blessed to know him and his legacy lives in the hearts of many.

  2. On November 25, 2013 at 4:46 pm Charles Day wrote:

    Thank you for the information on Bp. Wright. It had seemed to me that he had ALWAYS been Bp of East Carolina. Then to my amazement I have just learned that he was the dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco on Dec. 7, 1941!

    My rector, the Very Rev. Leroy D. Lawson, at St. Barnabas, DeLand, Fl. was from California and knew a lot of local stories about Grace Cathedral. He loved to tell the story of Dec. 7, 1941 when the dean announced in the service that a hymn was being changed – “We will sing Hymn #576 (Hymnal 1940) – I have just been told the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor!” The hymn was “Come Labor On” – “Who dares stand idle when idle…”

    Come, labor on

    Come, labor on.
    Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain,
    while all around us waves the golden grain?
    And to each servant does the Master say,
    “Go work today.”

    Come, labor on.
    The enemy is watching night and day,
    to sow the tares, to snatch the seed away;
    while we in sleep our duty have forgot,
    he slumbered not.

    Come, labor on.
    Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear!
    No arm so weak but may do service here:
    by feeblest agents may our God fulfill
    his righteous will.

    Come, labor on.
    Claim the high calling angels cannot share–
    to young and old the Gospel gladness bear;
    redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly.
    The night draws nigh.

    Come, labor on.
    No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
    till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
    and a glad sound comes with the setting sun.
    “Servants, well done.”

    Come, labor on.
    The toil is pleasant, the reward is sure,
    blessed are those who to the end endure;
    how full their joy, how deep their rest shall be,
    O Lord, with thee.

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