The Right Reverend Maurice M. Benitez, D.D., sixth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, entered the nearer presence of God on February 27, 2014 in Austin, Texas. He was 86.
Bishop Benitez was born in Washington, D.C. on January 23, 1928, the son of Colonel Enrique M. Benitez (US Army) and Blossom Compton Benitez. He was predeceased by his beloved wife of 63 years, Joanne Dossett Benitez, and by his brother Henry Compton Benitez, who was killed in action while serving as a pilot in World War II, and by his sister Babs Benitez Faber. He is survived by his three daughters Jennifer Benitez Shand, Leslie Anne Benitez, and Deborah Benitez Smith, by his grandsons Ben Shand, Peter Shand, Isaac Young, Evan Young, Taylor Smith, and Charlie Smith, and by his sons in law, the Reverend William M. Shand, III and Dr. James L. Smith, Jr.
Known to all as "Ben," Bishop Benitez attended schools on Army posts where his father was stationed, including bases in Virginia, Kansas, and the Panama Canal Zone. Following his secondary education at Miami Beach High School and Columbian Preparatory School in Washington, D.C., he entered the U. S. Military Academy, graduating from West Point in 1949 - one of two West Point graduates who became Episcopal bishops. His years at West Point helped to shape his character, and he remained loyal to the ideals of the Long Gray Line throughout his life. Following his commissioning in the U. S. Air Force, he completed flight training in Texas, where he and Joanne met and were married. In 1950 they were stationed at Williams Air Force Base, Chandler, Arizona where Ben received his training to fly jet fighters. Next, they moved to Munich, Germany where he served in the 527th Fighter-Bomber Squadron for three years during the tense days of the Cold War. He spent his final two years in the service as a test pilot at the Air Force Proving Ground Command, Eglin Air Force Base, Fort Walton, Florida. Along with friends and colleagues, he considered himself a "fighter pilot at heart" the rest of his life.
In 1955 Bishop Benitez enrolled in St Luke's School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee to study for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church. He was ordained in the Diocese of Florida in 1958 and assigned to St James Episcopal Church, Lake City, Florida. For two years (1961-62) he served as Canon Pastor of St John's Cathedral, Jacksonville, Florida, before being called as Rector of Grace Church, Ocala, Florida.
His years in Ocala were challenging ones in the life of the Church. The tensions of the civil rights movement caused Bishop Benitez to receive threats and hate messages as he stood up boldly against segregation. His parish school was the first in the area to be integrated, a step taken well before the public school system did the same. Still, he was held in such wide respect that when the public system's teachers later went on strike, he was asked by both sides to act as mediator of the dispute.
In 1968 he was called as Rector to Christ Church, San Antonio. There he introduced the exciting renewal program "Faith Alive!", which soon spread successfully throughout Texas and beyond. During his time there, he was elected to serve first on the Board of Trustees and then the Board of Regents of The University of the South, Sewanee, TN. He was called to the Church of St John the Divine in Houston in 1974, where he continued to implement popular forms of Christian renewal and evangelism. He served as chair of the diocesan programs of Christian Stewardship in both the Diocese of Texas and West Texas. Both dioceses elected him several terms as clerical deputy (representative) to the Episcopal Church's General Convention.
He was elected sixth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, and was consecrated on September 13, 1980 in Houston. For fifteen years he loved the privilege and responsibility of leading one of the strongest dioceses in the nation. One of his greatest joys was to continue the long example by which Texas presented more people of all ages for confirmation than any other diocese in the Episcopal Church. His first years as bishop coincided with the massive national capital campaign known as Venture in Mission in which the Episcopal Church raised funds for missionary efforts at home and abroad. The Diocese of Texas led all dioceses in total funds raised.
Bishop Benitez served on the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, and for 12 years on the board of the Church Pension Fund. As diocesan bishop, his priority was the ministry of the congregations of his diocese. Visiting the churches throughout the 57 counties of the diocese his most characteristic question of the clergy was, "What can I do in my job that will help you in yours?" His greatest delight was the establishment of new congregations. In 1980, the diocese had no Hispanic congregations; when he retired in 1995 it included seven Hispanic congregations, and El Buen Samaritano Mission in Austin. As Bishop of Texas, he served as the chairman of the Board of The Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, and led the effort to increase funding, enrollment, and support from other dioceses in the southwestern United States.
As Bishop of Texas he also was chairman of the Board of Directors of St Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston and provided leadership during a period of remarkable development and growth for the Hospital and Texas Heart Institute. Yet it was his dedicated, energetic leadership of the founding of the Episcopal High School in Houston that marked one of the proudest chapters in his episcopate. Over a twelve year period, more than $43 million was raised to provide for the purchase of land, the renovation and construction of the campus, and expansion of all aspects of school life. The chapel at the school is named in honor of Bishop and Mrs. Benitez.
Throughout their years together in the service and the ministry, he and Joanne were blessed with countless friends and with many opportunities to travel. But they were never happier than in the times spent with their children and grandchildren on the beach in Florida. Upon his retirement in 1995, they moved closer to family in Austin, but the Bishop continued to serve the Church in a variety of ways. One of his favorite activities was to lead parish retreats. His theme was always simple, and its focus clear: "Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior." Not long before his death, in a conversation with a friend, Bishop Benitez summarized his life and ministry: "I would really hope to be remembered for just one thing - I was simply a man who loved the Lord Jesus, and tried to be faithful to him."
The family is tremendously grateful to the staff of Arden Courts, Austin, for the loving care he received during the past year. Services for Bishop Benitez will be held at St. Luke's on the Lake, 5600 Ranch Road 620 N. in Austin on Monday, March 3rd at 3 pm, and at The Church of St. John the Divine, 2450 River Oaks Blvd. in Houston on Thursday, March 6th at 12 noon. Memorials are suggested to the Episcopal High School (www.ehshouston.org), Camp Allen Conference & Retreat Center (www.campallen.org), or to one's home parish.
Obituary and memorial guestbook available online at www.wcfish.com
Published in Austin American-Statesman from Mar. 1 to Mar. 3, 2014