The Rev. William A. Wendt, 81, an Episcopal priest and a civil rights activist who founded the St. Francis Center, an innovative ministry to the dying, died during morning services July 8 at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, where he had been an assistant in recent years. He had lung cancer.
Father Wendt had recently lived at the Washington Home hospice.
A World War II fighter pilot who flew 80 missions against Germany, Father Wendt became a priest "so I would never be involved in anything like that again." As a seminarian, he was inspired by the Anglican priests who worked in the slums of 19th-century London, and throughout his life he championed the cause of those on society's edges -- the homeless, welfare recipients, those addicted to drugs or alcohol.
A stocky figure with a shock of curly hair, Father Wendt was cheerful, plain-spoken, independent, sometimes profane and frequently controversial. He described himself as an "impatient Christian." He lived by the motto that "it's easier to seek forgiveness than permission. . . . If you've made the wrong move, you can seek forgiveness. That's called risking it."
As a civil rights and war protester, he was arrested on several occasions, and as an Episcopal priest he was found guilty of violating church doctrine by permitting a woman to serve Communion.
Of his work with the dying and those who grieve for them, he said: "Death is really the stimulus for a better way of living. Knowing we are going to die enables us to have a real concern for the way we live our lives and the way we are responsible for our lives. And the more knowledge we have of death and dying, the more we can keep ourselves healthy, happy, lively."
In the 1950s, Father Wendt worked in inner-city parishes in New York and Jersey City. In 1960, he moved to Washington and became pastor of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church on Newton Street NW. In 1978, he founded the St. Francis Center, which last year was renamed in his honor. He was its director until retiring in 1991.
Under Father Wendt, St. Stephen became a center of social activism. The church offered refuge to outsiders of that time, including civil rights workers, feminists, gays and war protesters. It also became involved in issues ranging from police-community relations to better public housing and home rule for the District of Columbia.
It provided a forum for black-power advocates such as H. Rap Brown, who gave a speech in 1967 calling for a policy of "shoot and loot" to cure racial injustice. Many parishioners were outraged, but Father Wendt argued that "if the church doesn't involve itself in giving voice to the frustrations of the ghetto, they will seek more violent channels."
Father Wendt was committed to the tradition of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest on which the civil rights movement was founded. In 1961, he was arrested for sitting in the "colored" section of the bus terminal in Jackson, Miss. He had gone there to take part in demonstrations that followed the Freedom Rides organized that year by James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality.
In 1965, he responded to a call to clergymen across the country from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after state police attacked peaceful marchers on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Television and newspaper coverage of the incident made it one of the defining moments of the civil rights struggle.
Among those whom Father Wendt persuaded to make the trip was the Rev. James Reeb of Boston, a former minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington. While walking on a Selma street, Reeb and two other ministers were attacked by whites. Reeb, who was beaten with a baseball bat, died of head injuries two days later.
"It is my agony that I talked him into going," Father Wendt said years later.
In 1966, Father Wendt led an "invasion" of Bolling Air Force Base to argue that the site should be used for low- and middle-income housing. In 1969, he was arrested for celebrating Mass at the Pentagon in honor of Vietnam War dead. He also was involved in overcoming opposition to the burial of a black person in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington.
In 1975, he allowed the Rev. Allison Cheek to celebrate Mass at St. Stephen. This was two years before the Episcopal Church decided to admit women to the priesthood. For this, Father Wendt was found guilty by the church of violating doctrine. He was formally reprimanded by the Right Rev. William F. Creighton, then bishop of Washington.
In 1973, Father Wendt had an experience that changed the focus of his work. This was the death from cancer of Jenny Moore, the wife of the Right Rev. Paul Moore, a former suffragan bishop of Washington and a friend since seminary.
Father Wendt ministered to her through her illness, and the experience convinced him that "the church didn't know much about death and dying."
"I can still hear her say, 'Bill, don't pray for me, just rub my feet,' " he told an interviewer. "And I learned how to rub feet in a beautiful, wonderful way. She also wanted to be buried in a plain pine coffin, and we couldn't find any, so we built her one.
"And that was the start of the St. Francis Center -- rubbing feet and putting people in pine coffins."
Father Wendt remained at St. Stephen and the Incarnation until 1977 and then took a year's sabbatical. He spent it studying the ideas of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, whose book "On Death and Dying" was a seminal work in the field. He also worked at a funeral home and at Children's Hospital.
With this preparation, he founded the organization he named after St. Francis of Assisi, his favorite saint. Originally called the St. Francis Burial and Counseling Society, its name was changed last year to the William Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. Its message has always been the same: Death is part of life, and everyone has a right to die in peace.
"You don't have to live for somebody," Father Wendt said in an oral history of the center in 1998. "In the early days, we found that people were encouraged to live. People were always saying, 'Don't die, I don't want you to die, I want you to stay with me.' Well, you couldn't do anything worse to a person than to try to encourage them to live when it was time to die. . . .
"What we started to do has never been accomplished. People are still in grave need to deal with separation and loss."
The role of the center, he said, was to help "people with the totality of their lives. Not as a religion, but as a base where people can find an emotional quietness and gentleness in dealing with some of the horrible, some of the terrible times of life."
What might be called the center's down-to-earth approach was symbolized by the plain pine coffins it offered in its early years. It was sometimes suggested to those who bought them that they could be fitted out as wine racks until needed.
Father Wendt was born Jan. 18, 1920, in Mitchell, S.D. He was the eldest of four children of William Ernest Wendt, a shoe salesman, and Clara Vesta Wendt. He attended South Dakota State College and planned a career in wildlife management.
World War II changed that. He enlisted in the South Dakota National Guard but soon transferred to the Army Air Corps under the mistaken belief that if he flunked out of pilot training, he would be sent home. Instead, he flew P-40 Warhawk fighters, served in North Africa and Italy, and rose to the rank of captain.
On one mission, he accompanied U.S. bombers on their way to raid the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, which, by coincidence, his maternal grandfather, a petroleum engineer, had helped establish.
When the war ended, Father Wendt enrolled at George Washington University. He majored in international relations and planned to go into the Foreign Service, but after graduating he chose the priesthood. He graduated from General Theological Seminary in New York in 1951.
When he retired from the St. Francis Center, Father Wendt moved to Montserrat in the Leeward Islands and served churches there and in Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. He returned to Washington in 1994 and became an assistant at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church. He held the title of pastor emeritus at St. Stephen and the Incarnation.
His marriages to Mary Malmborg and Alice Norris ended in divorce.
Survivors include three children from his first marriage, Betsy Wendt of Washington, Carolyn Wendt Dutcher of Los Angeles and Andrew Thomas Wendt of Santa Fe, N.M.; and two grandchildren.