Former Bishop Of Burlington Diocese Kenneth Angell Dies At 86

Oct 6, 2016

The eighth bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington has died. Kenneth Angell, who served as bishop of the Burlington Diocese for 12 years, died Tuesday at a nursing home in Winooski. He was 86 years old.

Angell’s tenure was marked by the priest sexual abuse scandal that engulfed the church nationally, and by personal tragedy.

His introduction to Vermont took place on a winter day before he was bishop. On a visit to Burlington he slipped on the ice and took a bad fall. Years later, as he announced his retirement, the Rhode Island native was still trying to adjust to Vermont winters. 

“I have loved my stay here in Vermont,” Angell said. “I hate the snow, though, and I don’t like to drive in it, and it's cold at times, but I love the people here.”

Angell was installed as bishop of the Burlington Diocese in 1992. Like other Catholic Church leaders, he had to deal with declining numbers of men entering the priesthood and a drop in church attendance. 

Some Vermont churches were closed and parishes consolidated.  

Angell also spoke out on issues. When a brutal murder prompted debate about reinstating the death penalty in Vermont, he opposed the idea.

"I enjoyed being a parish priest ... It was a wonderful, warm feeling to become a member of each of these families. You miss that." - Bishop Kenneth Angell

In 2000, he was forced to confront an issue that no other bishop had faced up to that time: the idea of granting legal rights similar to marriage to same-sex couples. Angell opposed Vermont’s first-in-the-nation civil unions legislation. 

He spent his final years as bishop dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by Vermont priests. At first, he resisted the state’s demand that the church turn over its files on allegations against priests. Then, at a Sunday Mass in the spring of 2002, Angell told parishioners he had changed his mind.

“After many hours of reflection, consultation and prayer, I have made a major decision concerning the crisis that presently besets the Church,” he said.

No criminal charges were ever filed against Vermont priests, but sex abuse lawsuits have cost the church millions, and ultimately led to the sale of church property, including the diocese offices.

In a 2003 interview with VPR, Angell said there were many people counseling him on how to respond to the sexual abuse allegations.

“They’ve all got different points of view, and you’ve got to make decisions,” Angell said. “So maybe you start off thinking one thing and you know that’s not going to work, and you want justice to be done, too.  It’s all mixed together. It’s not easy. It’s not easy at all.”

"People criticized him, but always there was not only a firmness, but there was a grace and humanity to him." - Writer Howard Coffin

The Vermont incidents occurred before Angell’s tenure as bishop, but he was named in a Rhode Island lawsuit that alleged he and other church leaders there failed to act on sexual abuse allegations.  

Angell served for 20 years as auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Providence. He was born there in 1930 and served as a parish priest in Newport, Rhode Island. 

In the 2003 interview, Angell recalled his days as a young priest. He said in Newport he ministered to many poor families who worked in the fishing industry and as the help in the homes of the wealthy. He said if he’d had a choice, he would have remained a parish priest.

“I enjoyed being a parish priest,” he said. “One of the most difficult parts of being a bishop is that you’re meeting all kinds of people, but it’s all on the surface. You’re not with them in their trials and their tribulations, in their joys and in their celebrations. You used to feel almost a part of most of the families. All of the important [things], they would invite you to in their lives. It was a wonderful, warm feeling to become a member of each of these families. You miss that. You miss that very much.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, Angell’s brother David and his sister-in-law Lynn died in one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center. 

Writer Howard Coffin, who was hired by the church to write a book on the history of the Burlington Diocese, recalls attending a special mass held for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Angell led the service.

“He prayed not only for the victims of 9/11 but for the perpetrators, which I thought was one of the most generous and courageous things that I ever saw,” Coffin said. “He said afterwards it was very difficult.”

Angell was a large man, and when leading a Mass, wearing the vestments of his office and speaking in his booming voice, he cut an imposing and remote figure. But Coffin says Angell had a well-developed sense of humor and preferred being with people to the more monastic aspects of religious life.

“Each bishop has a motto,” Coffin said. “His was, ‘Serve the Lord with gladness.’ That, I think, he did.  People didn’t agree with him, people criticized him, but always there was not only a firmness, but there was a grace and humanity to him.”