The Rev. H. Douglas Fontaine believed a newspaper was a vital ingredient in a good sermon.
The towering, charismatic dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral — known to friends, family and congregants as Doug — died of prostate cancer on Feb. 23 at age 86. His friends and family remember him for his sense of humor and stubborn passion for inclusivity, welcoming everyone to his congregation equally — no matter their race, gender or sexual orientation. He championed civil rights at a time when it was controversial in the clergy, and kept his sermons relevant by interpreting the gospel through the lens of present day.
Fontaine was born in Charleston, W.Va., on Jan. 20, 1931, to Elizabeth and H. Douglas Fontaine Sr. His father died when he was young, so Elizabeth raised him and his two siblings by herself during the Great Depression.
Even as a young man, Fontaine was troubled by the rampant inequality he witnessed in the South, said his friend Mary Sicilia, who worked with him for almost a decade. Through adulthood, he frequently spoke of his disapproval of how the rich oppressed the poor.
It was through these experiences he developed a progressive philosophy toward his clergy and sermons. He came to Minnesota in 1970 and served as dean of St. Mark’s for 23 years. A Star Tribune article from the time described him as a “friendly, pipe-smoking southerner” who saw “fantastic” potential in St. Mark’s.
“I’m not a marcher, not a sign-carrying protester, but I’m convinced that if the church as an institution has a future it’s got to be involved in the world,” Fontaine told the reporter.
Soon after, his was one of the first Episcopal churches in the country to hire a woman priest or to send an openly gay man to seminary.
“There was a lot of pushback, and a lot of people left the church right off the bat,” recalled Fontaine’s son, Peter. But he remained steadfast, and “he was able to gain more people in the long run to come be part of his congregation than what he lost in the short term.”
Outside of church, he had charisma that allowed him to command any room. He had an outrageous sense of humor, his friends and family recalled. In 1979, when the Skylab space station was falling to Earth, he held a kegger in his backyard and made everyone wear funny hats to protect them from debris. He spoke in humorous refrains, like “Lord love a duck.” Or, when Peter would tell his dad he wanted something, Fontaine would reply, simply, that “people in hell want ice water.”
“You had to try and understand it,” Peter said of his father’s peculiar brand of humor. “He was very, very sarcastic.”
Sicilia recalls with fondness the time that Fontaine hired her for a job for which she quickly realized she was not qualified. When she tried to resign, Fontaine stopped her. “Who do you think you are?” he demanded. “Don’t you suppose that if God can use Balaam’s ass, God can use you?”
“God did use Balaam’s ass,” wrote Sicilia — referring to the biblical story in which a donkey is granted the divine power to speak — in tribute to her former boss after his death. “And God used Doug Fontaine mightily in my life and in the lives of so many people.”
Fontaine’s wife, Jeanne, also died recently. He is survived by his sister, Nancy; children Doug, Tim, Ann, Maury and Peter, and seven grandchildren. His family will hold a service for him at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis on April 1 — April Fools’ Day.
“We thought he would appreciate it,” said Peter.