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Reverend Canon Thomas Nisbett (1925-2024): ‘Gentle and patient trailblazer’

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The Reverend Canon Thomas Nisbett, Canon Emeritus, at his home. He passed away on Tuesday (File photograph)

The Reverend Canon Thomas Nisbett has been remembered as a “quiet warrior” and a trailblazer of the Anglican Church.

Canon Nisbett passed away on Tuesday evening at the age of 98.

He was known for overcoming racial barriers to become the first Black Anglican priest in Bermuda and was known for his groundbreaking contributions to Anglican churches.

The Right Reverend Nicholas Dill, Bishop of Bermuda, said Canon Nisbett was his “spiritual father”.

Bishop Dill recalled: “When I was a boy in Bermuda and he came to be the rector of Christ Church, Devonshire, he did a one-on-one confirmation class with me. It was the first time I got to know him – I was 13.

“Later, I came back as a lawyer and we lived around the corner from Christ Church. We were warmly embraced and we set up Bible studies.

“He bought me my first robe to help me to lead the Sunday services, and then when I was ordained in England he came across with his wife to represent the dioceses. He has been a part of our lives ever since.”

The Right Reverend Nicholas Dill, Bishop of Bermuda, said Canon Nisbett was his “spiritual father” (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Canon Nisbett was the son of parents who emigrated to Bermuda from Nevis and lived in the St Monica’s Road area of Pembroke.

At the age of 7, he was baptised in the AME Church and became a choirboy at St Monica’s Mission.

This was the start of a journey that would see him become the first Black priest to have a permanent post in the Anglican Church in Bermuda.

On leaving school, Canon Nisbett worked as a carpenter, following in his father’s footsteps, yet persevered with his passion to enter the priesthood.

The Reverend Canon Thomas Nisbett passed away on Tuesday evening (File photograph)

That Bermuda’s Anglican Church practised segregation, with separate choirs and Sunday school for Blacks and Whites until the 1960s, did not put him off.

The leadership at St Monica’s Mission, which was built to serve the spiritual needs of Caribbean immigrants and was consecrated in 1909, was Black and Canon Nisbett played an active role.

In 1962, he was ordained a deacon in Barbados when Bermuda’s Anglican bishop refused to sponsor the last part of his training. After spending two years attached to St Phillip’s Church, in 1963 he was ordained a priest.

He returned to Bermuda in 1965 to assume his first role on home soil.

He was called “a gentle and patient trailblazer” when, that year, he became assistant priest at St James Church in Somerset, the first Black to do so.

He was then assigned to Chapel of Ease in St David’s and St Peter’s, followed by St John’s in Pembroke. In 1974, he was appointed rector of Christ Church, Devonshire, a position he held for 22 years.

During his long career, he served as chaplain to the Bishop, chaplain to the Governor and the Diocesan Guild Council. In 1981, the Reverend Thomas Nisbett became a canon.

Bishop Dill added: “He had an amazing spirit. In the Anglican Church, we talk about the fruit of the spirit – characteristics such as love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness and gentleness, and he exhibited them all in how he helped others.

The Reverend Canon Thomas Nesbitt with Archbishop Desmond Tutu during a visit to Bermuda

“After all he had been through in terms of rejection and racism, I likened him to Bermuda’s version of Desmond Tutu in bringing reconciliation and a different kind of message – a message of peace. He was a man small in stature but in terms of authenticity, impact and moral stature, he was large.”

Soon after he became a canon, Bermuda was hit by the strike of 1981. The grassroots organisation Bermuda Workers’ Socialists set up the Strikers’ Family Support Committee to encourage solidarity across the wider community. Canon Nisbett agreed to be co-chairman and was soon joined by the Reverend Larry Lowe, of St Paul AME, as the other co-chairman.

Glenn Fubler, an activist, recalled: “It was a breakthrough in terms of opportunity in the Anglican Church. He, along with Larry Lowe, had a big impact in that regard.

“That committee raised $7,000 in two weeks and the money was minor to the food items that were brought in.”

Glenn Fubler, a Bermudian activist (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

Within a year of peaceful resolution of the strike, Canon Nisbett agreed to become the honorary chairman of the Bermuda Anti-Apartheid Group set up by the Bermuda Workers’ Socialists.

He served as chairman during the 1980s.

Mr Fubler added: “Again, his presence was well received in that regard. Because of his quiet demeanour, just by his presence, he was able to help to bring the community together.

“On at least one occasion, he went to a conference on solidarity with South Africa and there was a picture of him and Desmond Tutu. It may have been an Anglican gathering, as Tutu was Anglican.”

Canon Nisbett was joined by Ottiwell Simmons and Mr Fubler, among numerous guests of the New York City Council, for the welcome of Nelson Mandela to New York in 1990.

Mr Fubler recalled: “We went there as special guests for that occasion. It culminated in an event at Yankee Stadium and he was one of those who went up in the box they had for special guests.

“He was always humble. His legacy is something that the rest of us can be guided by.”

In 2012, Canon Nisbett and his wife, Winifred, who died in 2011, were recognised by the Anglican Church with the launch of the Canon Thomas and Winifred Nisbett Lectures in Biblical Studies.

They were described as “longstanding and much loved pioneers in shaping the Anglican Church of Bermuda in the modern era, who through patience and the study of the Scriptures, modelled and enabled the Church to move beyond the era of segregation”.

David Burt, the Premier, remembered Canon Nisbett as “a man of strong character and convictions whose life story testifies to the triumph of right over might".

The Premier added: “The powerful forces that conspired to defeat his desire to serve the people were no match for a man whose small stature belied a giant of faith and determination. He comforted and counselled people during the 1981 General Strike and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with those who dared speak out against South Africa's apartheid regime. And through all of this, pastored congregations in Bermuda with love and dedication.

“We owe Canon Nisbett a tremendous debt of gratitude as one of those Bermudians who extended his Christian beliefs to action, lifting up the most vulnerable in our society. On behalf of the Government and people of Bermuda, I wish comfort and peace to his sons and family as they mourn the loss of this steadfast servant of God and the people.”

Canon Nisbett is also a Second World War veteran who served in the Bermuda Militia Infantry and guarded the island against threats.

He and his wife are the parents of two children, Thomas Jr and Michael. Thomas Jr has followed in his father’s footsteps and is a priest in New Brunswick, Canada.

Michael remembered his father for his humility. He said: “If we had a knock on the door, it could be the Dills or the Coxs, or it could be a homeless person knocking — he always treated everybody the same. He would just treat them as human beings. It is a rare characteristic.

“He also showed that you don’t have to be yelling and screaming to make a difference. He had a quiet charisma about him that people liked.”

Michael recalled how his father would visit schoolchildren at Saltus Cavendish when stationed in Devonshire.

“If you wanted him to come to bless your child or bury your grandma, my dad would do his best to meet what need you had, regardless of who you were.”

Paget Primary School recently featured Canon Nisbett in its annual Black History Museum. Under the guidance of Kennisha DeShields, ASD multigrade teacher at the school, the students embarked on a journey of discovery, exploring Canon Nisbett’s life and “enduring impact to social justice and community leadership in Bermuda”.

Ms De Shields said: “His unwavering commitment to breaking barriers and fostering inclusivity serves as a beacon of inspiration for us all.

“As we reflect on the profound contributions of Canon Thomas Nisbett and other trailblazers in Black history, let us celebrate their indomitable spirit and honour their enduring legacy.”

The Reverend Canon Thomas Nisbett passed away on Tuesday evening (File photograph)

The Reverend Canon Thomas Norman Nisbett, Anglican priest, was born on October 24, 1925 and died on April 2, 2024

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Published April 04, 2024 at 11:24 am (Updated April 04, 2024 at 11:24 am)

Reverend Canon Thomas Nisbett (1925-2024): ‘Gentle and patient trailblazer’

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