The Right Reverend Walter Asbil (1932-2023)
Bishop Walter Asbil, retired diocesan bishop of Niagara, died on April 8, 2023 on the eve of Easter, at the age of 90.
“Bishop Walter was a faithful and dedicated servant who led the diocese with the heart of a pastor,” said Bishop Susan Bell. “Each of us have great reason to remember him with gratitude and with love. I thank God for his wise and compassionate service to our diocese.”
Born in 1932 in Rawdon, Quebec, Bishop Asbil studied at Concordia University where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts in 1954, followed by a Bachelor of Divinity from McGill University and a Licentiate in Theology from Montreal Diocesan Theological College in 1957. He was ordained a deacon in May of 1957 and a priest in December of that same year. He served in several parishes in the Diocese of Montreal before moving to the Diocese of Niagara to take up the position of rector of St. George’s, St. Catharines in 1970. In 1973 he was appointed an honourary canon of Christ’s Church Cathedral in Hamilton, and in 1982 he was appointed to serve as a Bishop’s Archdeacon. In 1986, he was appointed to serve as rector of Christ Church Cathedral and dean of the Diocese of Ottawa.
In 1990, Bishop Asbil was elected to serve as coadjutor bishop by the synod of the Diocese of Niagara. He was ordained to the episcopate on November 1, 1991 and became the ninth Bishop of Niagara on December 1, 1991. He served as diocesan bishop until his retirement on December 31, 1997. During his long ministry he also contributed to the councils of the church, including service as deputy prolocutor of the General Synod and as a member of the global Anglican Consultative Council.
Bishop Asbil was awarded an honourary Doctor of Divinity degree from his alma mater, Montreal Diocesan Theological College.
In retirement, Bishop Asbil served as incumbent of St. Saviour’s Church, Queenston, and then served as Bishop-in-residence at St. George’s Church, St. Catharines.
A service celebrating Bishop Asbil’s life and ministry took place on Monday, April 24 at St. George’s, St. Catharines. Bishop Absil’s family, friends, and colleagues gathered to mourn his death and celebrate his life and incredible witness to the Gospel. Bishop Susan Bell officiated at the service, with Bishop Michael Bird celebrating the Eucharist, and Canon Martha Tatarnic preaching.
“Thank you, Walter, for walking with us, shaping us, blessing us, and, in the mystery of God’s own life, being with us now,” said Canon Martha Tatarnic in her homily.
Archdeacon Bruce McPetrie
“There was a certain aura when meeting Bishop Walter Asbil. His welcoming smile and gentle ways spoke of a spiritual man of the highest calibre. Bishop Walter was a pastoral man who loved his people and was loved back by those for whom he was caring. If you ever had the chance to work with him, you know you were blessed. I know of no other cleric who rightfully earned as much respect as he. Even those outside church circles, in conversation, would volunteer that when Walter spoke, they listened attentively. When he wrote about the impact a decision makes on a particular subject, the letter was often kept, shared—and I know of one that was read aloud in the Provincial Legislature.”
Bishop Michael Bird
“Bishop Walter was quite simply one of the finest church leaders I have ever had the privilege of serving with in ministry. At St. George’s Church in St. Catharines, I witnessed the profound and abiding impact his ministry had upon the congregation there and how deeply loved and respected he was by everyone. Prior to Walterʼs becoming bishop, Bishop John Bothwell once told me that, in his opinion, Walter was the finest parish priest in the Canadian Church.
In his episcopal ministry, Bishop Walter inspired his clergy, myself included, to think outside the box and to vigorously explore new models for ministry. He fostered wonderful relationships with the clergy and people of the diocese, and my family and I have many fond memories of Walter and Mavis’ visits to the churches I served. In many ways, I tried to follow his examples in my own episcopal ministry.
Above all, however, and on a personal note, I am most grateful for the beautiful letters of encouragement and support he sent to me, on a regular basis, as one of his successors in the Bishop’s Office. They were always very timely, and they meant the world to me. I still have many of them to this day.”
“You could have knocked me over with a feather when Bishop Walter called me and asked if I could act as bishop’s chaplain for him. I had no idea what a bishop’s chaplain was, or what one did. I asked, he explained, and there I was in the role. It involves accompanying the bishop to various “bishopy” functions—of which there are many—and holding the bishop’s mitre and crozier when his function made it difficult for him to do this for himself. So, I spent many a time happily standing beside the bishop and looking very “bishopy” myself (except I never put the mitre on my head).
What I remember most fondly about Bishop Asbil is his sense of humour and his graciousness. He always asked how I was feeling, and about the welfare of my family. My impression of him was that he was deeply faithful, very loving, and that he strived to not take himself too seriously. At the same time he was mindful and serious about his calling as a bishop. In old-fashioned terminology, Bishop Asbil was a true gentleman.”
Canon Rob Welch
“When I reflect on Bishop Walter Asbil, I think of someone who was gentle, nurturing and pastoral, but who could be firm and direct when necessary. One of Walter’s key words was “gratitude” (he used it as the theme of one of his charges to Synod), and I think of his life and ministry with a same expression of gratitude.
Walter appointed me as vice-chancellor to my Dad (officially) in 1991 when he was coadjutor bishop and then as chancellor November 1st, 1992, after he became diocesan bishop.
It can’t be overstated that without Walter, Cathedral Place wouldn’t have been a reality. As bishop, Walter was determined to move the Synod Office to the Cathedral as a symbol of the diocese’s support of the neighbourhood surrounding the Cathedral. Some others in diocesan administration, at the time, had a vision that the Synod office was best located in a commercial strip plaza in Burlington. Walter had other, better, ideas. When Cathedral Place opened, the Primate at the time, Archbishop Michael Peers, praised Walter’s vision to those present at the ceremony.
Walter was also prepared to stick his neck out for those less fortunate. When the Mike Harris government, upon taking office in 1995, cut social benefits and transformed other programmes, Walter wrote an open and critical letter to the Premier. He decried the changes, saying they were “slamming the poor.” Later Walter showed me a letter he received in response from a parishioner of a St. Catharines church, telling him he should stick to religion and not venture into politics. He put the letter aside with a smile.”
Archdeacon Marion Vincett
“I just read the obituary posted on the website of the funeral home in St. Catharines where Bishop Walter had made his funeral arrangements. It captures him exceptionally well in every regard, but the phrase that caught my attention was: “He was a wise, fiercely inclusive leader,” because my experience of him captures this reality.
I had been ordained deacon in 1989 and served my curacy at St Mark’s in Orangeville before being appointed to All Saints, Erin, in the spring of 1991. In 1994, at the clergy conference in Orillia, Bishop Walter came and sat beside me with his glass of wine in hand. We chatted briefly and then he said, casually, “Marion, I should like to appoint you as Archdeacon of Greater Wellington.”
This was a tremendous shock to me, and my immediate reaction was to say, “Oh no! You can’t do that!”
Walter smiled sweetly, and said, “Actually, Marion, I think I can!”
I became an archdeacon, but not before he had patiently explained that he saw the duties as being primarily pastoral to his clergy. My image of an archdeacon had been very much influenced by Trollope, I think! As far as I know, I was the first female archdeacon appointed in Canada, and Bishop Walter was always very supportive of bringing women into the leadership of the Church.”
Bishop Ralph Spence
“Bishop Walter Asbil was one of the great bishops of our church—wise, kind, a gentleman in every sense of the word. He had a vision of where the Church would be in the future and knew our ministry must adapt to the age we serve in today. He was a mentor to many, but most of all a real, true friend who supported and encouraged the clergy and lay people. He served God and his Church with every day of his life. Bishop Walter and Mavis were the best of Christian examples for all of us and Niagara is an example of the best of what we can be because of the two of them.”