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The Very Rev. Van H. Gardner, dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation for more than two decades, dies

The Very Rev. Van H. Gardner was dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation for 21 years.
The Very Rev. Van H. Gardner was dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation for 21 years.

The Very Rev. Van H. Gardner, who was dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation for more than two decades and later became an assisting priest at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, died Monday from complications of melanoma at his Silo Point condominium in Locust Point, where he had lived for the past decade. The former Guilford resident was 74.

“I was very fond of Van. I came on as Episcopal bishop in 2008 and he decided to retire,” said the Rt. Rev. Eugene W. Sutton, the 14th Episcopal bishop of Maryland. “It was so obvious to me that Van was a gifted priest and loved God. He had a special empathy and connection with the poor, the outcast and the oppressed that was just amazing.”

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He added: “He was a loving priest, husband, and father, and was a man full of love that exhibited the love of Christ.”

“As deputy chancellor and chancellor for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland for many years, I had many opportunities to interact with Van,” said Jeffery P. Ayres, a Venable LLP partner. “He was a gentle giant and a pillar of strength, within his own parishes and throughout the diocese and the greater Baltimore community. No one had a bigger heart than Van in caring for and ministering to common people.”

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Van Howard Gardner, son of Edward Gardner, proprietor of the Hampden Tobacco Co. on 36th St., and his wife, Anne Gardner, a Maryland Casualty Insurance Co. secretary, was born in Baltimore and raised in Hampden, where his family attended the Episcopal Church of the Guardian Angel.

Dean Gardner was a 1964 graduate of City College and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1968 from what is now Frostburg State University, where he was president of Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity.

In 1969, he married his college sweetheart, the former Kathleen Kelly, who later became a Baltimore County public schools art teacher. The couple returned to Baltimore and Dean Gardner began teaching history at Eastern Vocational Technical High School in Essex, and while teaching studied for a master’s degree at Morgan State University.

Even though he never ceased being a teacher, Dean Gardner decided on a career change and entered the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, from which he earned in 1977 a master’s degree in divinity.

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After being ordained, he served as acting priest of the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Hamilton and was named rector in 1979 of St. Mark’s on the Hill Episcopal Church. While at the Pikesville church, he became one of the founders of Paul’s Place, a community ministry at St. Paul the Apostle Episcopal Church in Pigtown.

In 1987, he was named dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation, a position he held for 21 years.

“When he became dean, the cathedral wasn’t doing too well. His children were the cathedral’s youth group,” Bishop Sutton said. “Van built it up and it grew under his leadership.”

During those years at the cathedral, Dean Gardner became active with Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, ultimately leading his congregation to sponsor and restore 15 homes for the needy.

He joined with members of his congregation to found the Children’s Peace Center, a nonprofit organization that works with inner-city children, and served as its first board person.

“We began lighting candles every Sunday for children 18 or under who had been killed violently in Baltimore City on a back altar,” said Dorris W. McElroy, the organization’s secretary. “And while we were praying for dead children, we decided to see what we could do for living children, and that was the origin of the Children’s Peace Center.”

A Children’s Peace Memorial, which opened in 2005, stands on the cathedral grounds in remembrance of children who have died as a result of violence in the city.

“Within the garden, a footbridge will cross the grass river to a marble relief of a slumbering lion and lamb,” The Sun reported at the time. “As it grows, a new American elm will offer ample shade, and cement medallions made by children will commemorate the lives of peers who have died violently in Baltimore.”

The garden, Dean Gardner told the newspaper, was a way for the church to “take our concern inside the building and get it out in a visible way.”

He was a pastoral presence at the Don Miller House, where he ministered to those with HIV and presided at their funerals. He and fellow members of this congregation founded the Episcopal Refugee and Immigrant Center Alliance, serving the city’s immigrant population.

After retiring in 2008, Dean Gardner served briefly as chaplain at St. Timothy’s School in Stevenson and for several years at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on North Carey Street in West Baltimore, where he was instrumental in founding the St. Luke’s Youth Center.

“He was fabulous and was the man you could go to when you had issues. He was always there whenever you were in need,” said Darlene W. Clark, youth engagement coordinator at the center. “He was just the finest person. He wasn’t stuffy at all and loved playing with the kids in the parking lot. And could he dance, oh my goodness. He was just a youthful person.”

Ms. Clark added: “With him, she knew you always had his ear because he understood the pressures of life and would guide you spiritually. He was just a beautiful person to be around. He was just there for everybody.”

Even though Dean Gardner left St. Luke’s in 2017 to become an assisting priest at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Ruxton, he remained active with its mission.

He had not retired at his death.

He was an avid Orioles and Ravens fan, and loved “nothing more than to sit with a good Irish whiskey, a book, or go fishing,” according to a biographical profile submitted by his family.

Dean Gardner’s interment at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation is private, and plans for a memorial service to be held at a later date are incomplete because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to his wife of 52 years, Dean Gardner is survived by a son, Edward Gardner of Frederick; two daughters, Kerry Towner of Phoenix, Baltimore County, and Amanda Talbot of Mount Washington; a sister, Robin Ballinger of Cockeysville; and six grandchildren.

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