Ralph Stewart died in the way that he wished to, surrounded by family and song on August 7, 2020 in New Paltz. He was 87 years old.
Ralph was born in Huron, South Dakota in 1933 to Clarence and Julia Stewart and was the youngest of their four children. Julia made a point of playing the piano during every pregnancy so that her children would be musical, and indeed all four Stewart children grew up playing piano and singing. Ralph became an accomplished singer, organist, and pianist, and he played and led singalongs at every high school party. Following South Dakota tradition, he began driving as soon as he could reach the pedals, and spoke of driving a group of his friends to a basketball game in a neighboring town 50 miles away when he was twelve, with the full knowledge and consent of all the parents!
Ralph attended Carleton College in Minnesota where he majored in philosophy and continued his studies in music, taking organ lessons and performing in school operas and operettas. He met his future spouse, Mary Capper, when the director instructed her to sit next to him in the college choir. The story goes that he asked her out for a date that first day, but she already had two dates lined up. But a first date was had, and many more followed.
Ralph said he always knew he wanted to be an Episcopal priest; upon graduating from Carleton with a BA in 1954, he was admitted to General Theological Seminary in New York City. He received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree in 1957 and was ordained Deacon on June 19, 1957. He and Mary married eight days later in Manistee, Michigan and moved together to Webster, South Dakota, where he became the rector for two small churches, St. Mary’s in Webster and Christ Episcopal Church in Milbank. Ralph was ordained Priest December 21, 1957 and celebrated his first Christmas Eucharist shortly thereafter.
Ralph and Mary moved to Evanston, Illinois in 1960, where Ralph earned a Master of Sacred Theology degree at Seabury Western Seminary and worked on the staff of St. Mark’s. He was called to St. Francis Church in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, where he served as rector from 1961 to 1970. The Stewart family then moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where Ralph was the rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church from 1970 to 1980. Ralph’s last parish was St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington, where he served as rector from 1980 until his retirement in 1995. He then continued his ministry as a “supply priest” throughout the Diocese of Olympia and enjoyed singing and preaching from the pulpit in churches throughout the Seattle area. Ralph celebrated his last Eucharist in his New Paltz apartment with his daughter Kathryn on Easter Day, 2020.
A dear friend described Ralph as always being filled with wonder and gratitude. Ralph shared this with his family and with his parishioners and friends. He was a wordsmith and used his knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin to bring scripture alive for his congregation. He always had a sense of playfulness about him and showed those around him that it’s possible to be playful and serious at the same time. His parishioners came to understand that asking the big questions is the essential part of living a life of faith; having the answers is less important. And ritual and music were always central. Ralph composed songs, usually call and response, that he taught to his congregation so that all were involved together in the moment of reflection and celebration. Frank Rippl, organist and music director of All Saints, considered Ralph to be a mentor, and the two of them created beautiful liturgies full of music and wonder. In Seattle, Ralph found another “co-conspirator” in Mary Needham, St. John’s organist and music director. Ralph’s seamless and joyful union of living and liturgy was also an inspiration to a number of remarkable young men and women, who chose to follow the same path as he, and become Episcopal priests.
Music was central to Ralph’s life. Ralph ended most evenings at the piano playing and singing in the family music room. A World War 1 field organ came along on every family vacation, and friends and strangers alike were drawn to the singalongs that ensued. Ralph would even put the field organ on a sled for caroling and was known to play the Skater’s Waltz on a frozen lake (while wearing gloves) as friends skated around him. He and Mary began performing together as a duo in South Dakota and later added their children – John, Mark, and Kathryn – to the “family band.” The Stewart Family Troubadours performed throughout Wisconsin, Michigan, and South Dakota. Ralph also sang as a soloist in operas and concerts in Wisconsin.
After a devastating stroke in 2005, Ralph moved from Seattle to New Paltz, NY to live closer to his daughter Kathryn and her wife Susan. Ralph quickly became a fixture in New Paltz as “that guy with a big white beard, large black hat, shorts-even-in-chilly-weather, and high black socks” who walked everywhere throughout town. While his stroke affected his ability to communicate, he greeted everyone and enjoyed conversations with those he encountered. He loved getting on the Trailways bus to go to the opera, ballet, and theater in NYC. When that became too difficult, he was an early and enthusiastic subscriber to New Paltz’s Denizen Theatre.
Ralph is survived by his three children, John, Mark, and Kathryn; by his daughters-in-law Lisa, Karen, and Susan; and by his grandchildren Gabe, Jay, David, Sarah, and Hannah. He was recently predeceased by his dear friend and former spouse, Mary.
One of Ralph’s call-and-response songs reflects his spirit of reflection and appreciation: “This is the day that the Lord has made….We will rejoice, and be glad in it!”