Frank Allan led church through challenging times

The Rt. Rev. Frank Allan, right, the former Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, broke barriers as a rector and leader. On the left is the Rt. Rev. Onell A. Soto.

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The Rt. Rev. Frank Allan, right, the former Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, broke barriers as a rector and leader. On the left is the Rt. Rev. Onell A. Soto.

In the late 1960s, while rector at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Macon, the Rev. Frank Allan, who’d later become the eighth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, stood squarely at a crossroads. St. Paul’s already had a smattering of black members. But during a sermon one Sunday, Allan told his congregation that further integration and shifts were imminent and critical.

He was interrupted in mid-sentence by a woman named Hazel Burns, who reportedly stood up and asked, “Are you saying that [as an all-white church) we’ve been wrong all these years?”

He abandoned his sermon and engaged Burns in a dialogue that other parishioners joined. Though she wasn’t present that day, Allan’s longtime friend and colleague, the Rev. Martha Sterne, said the congregation “discussed, argued, discussed some more and some even cried.”

“They battled it out,” Sterne said, “and found a new vision.” This eventually included Allan appointing Burns as head lay person, the first woman at St. Paul’s to hold that position.

Allan was already displaying, in his 30s, the style and grace under pressure characteristic of his mature years. Allan, Sterne said, was always direct in personal discourse and his sermons. He was a deft organizer, whether making dramatic changes in a church’s social structure, or enervating a collective of bookish, tools-challenged priests to build a Habitat-for-Humanity home.

“He could get people excited, he could get them working together,” Sterne said. “Like Tom Sawyer painting the fence.”

Reverend Frank Kellogg Allan, 84, died May 24 from complications from diabetes and a rare skin condition. A memorial service was held June 1.

> Read and sign the online guestbook for Rev. Frank Allen

He was born May 9, 1935 in Hammond, Ind. His father Bryan was a civil engineer who moved the family to Miami then Atlanta while he built houses for employees of the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Frank graduated from Druid Hills High and Emory College with an English degree. He grew up Presbyterian, but didn’t regularly attend and thought that most preachers were “stiff,” said his wife Elizabeth.

Then Allan discovered a great-great grandfather whose life rhymed with his own. Hiram Huntington Kellogg founded Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., in the mid 19th century. Kellogg was Presbyterian minister and an abolitionist while Galesburg was a center for the Underground Railroad.

By the time Allan and Elizabeth met at Emory, he’d become drawn to Episcopalianism through Holy Trinity Parish in Decatur, where they later wed.

He went on to the School of Theology at The University of the South and subsequently became rector at small churches. They went to Macon in 1968, about which he told Elizabeth years later, “It never got boring.”

As with much of the country, Macon’s schools were integrating, with Elizabeth teaching high school at all-black or predominantly black schools. The city’s mayor was “Machine Gun Ronnie” Thompson, who in 1969 blocked Muhammad Ali from fighting at the Macon Coliseum and a year later drove a National Guard tank onto a Macon elementary campus during a race riot.

Meantime, Saint Paul’s was changing dramatically, particularly with the church becoming more involved with the nearby low-income neighborhoods of both races.

In 1977, he moved to Saint Anne’s Episcopal in Buckhead. It was here he met Martha Sterne, who became the first woman priest he ordained after becoming Bishop.

During the 1979-81 Atlanta child murders, Saint Anne’s and Allan set up a network of staffed homes so children coming from school had someplace to stay.

One afternoon Sterne remembers Allan stepping outside and studying the church intently before saying, “Would anyone notice if this church vanished tomorrow?”

“What he meant was, ‘are you serving the people around you, or are you just patting yourself on the back.’” she said.

Allan was bishop from 1989 to 2000, but he still preached nearly every Sunday at one of the diocese’s 110 communities.

“Frank’s number one legacy is his passion for social justice,” said the Rt. Rev J. Neil Alexander, Dean of the University of the South’s School of Theology and, as Allan’s successor, Atlanta Bishop from 2001-12. “That is, justice as it relates to persons of color, support of historically black colleges, support for the ordination of women, and full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church.”

A lifelong wood turner, Allan cut a virtual template for how one negotiates retirement. He taught liturgy and church history at Candler School of Theology and became Episcopal Bishop in Residence in 2000.

He and Elizabeth also started “The Work of Our Hands,” a nonprofit supporting art-oriented programs throughout the metro area.

He also helped found the state’s only folk school at Camp Mikell in the northeast Georgia mountains, teaching among others, weaving, woodworking, photography and stained glass techniques.

Often getting antsy after long stretches of “thinking, writing and reading,” Allan once wrote, “when my hands get too soft and I get to much into my head and heart, I know that I need the spiritual renewal that comes with hands on, sometimes sweaty creativity.”

He died less than three weeks before his and Elizabeth’s 62nd wedding anniversary.

Allan is survived by his wife Elizabeth Ansley Allan, their children John Mark Allan (Juliet), Michael Ansley Allan (Kathy), Libby Allan Sisson (Clay), Matt Allan (Karin) and their nine grandchildren

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