Leffler, John Compton (1900-1987)

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 6/07/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3342

The Very Reverend John C. Leffler was the dean of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral on Seattle's Capitol Hill from 1951 to 1971. He took over a "dirty, grimy, dismal church" (The Seattle Times) that had been lost in foreclosure and transformed it into the center of a thriving religious and social community. St. Mark's gained a nationwide reputation for its liturgical music, which was broadcast weekly on the radio. Dean Leffler was vocal in many controversial issues and was an opponent of the Vietnam War.

John Compton Leffler was born on May 26, 1900, in Northridge, New York, the son of a Methodist clergyman. He was afflicted with a clubfoot, but graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and from the Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. He was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1929. His first postings were in California. In 1942, he was one of few clergymen to speak out against the wartime internment of Japanese Americans.


Leffler came to St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, located on Seattle's Capitol Hill, on September 1, 1951. The parish was small and discouraged. The church had seen hard times. When it could not meet its mortgage payments it had closed. During World War II, it had been rented to the U.S. Army as an anti-aircraft training facility.

Leffler made Peter Hallock responsible for music for the parish and Hallock developed a choir from scratch. Hallock began expanding the repertoire for services and he worked in the "early music revival" before the movement had a name. Hallock composed original works and music became a major component of St. Mark's services. The compline service on Sunday evenings began as a workshop in musical techniques of plainchant singing. It eventually attracted young people to services in the 1960s. St. Mark's services were broadcast on Sundays and at Christmas. Hallock convinced the St. Margaret's Guild to raise $100,000 for a Dirk Flentrop organ, which became a centerpiece of the music program. Leffler designated Hallock canon precentor.

Whirlwinds of Change

Leffler was an effective preacher. "I think God gave me a certain gift for speaking," he said, "and I disciplined it."

Dean Leffler's style was not that of "a conservative church politician playing the non-committal game of appeasement." He took on "McCarthyites and Birchers" (The Seattle Times) and supported the ordination of women, civil rights, abortion rights, and a modernized prayer book. He once took out a full-page newspaper advertisement attacking Republicans who linked ungodliness and Democrats. When African American civil rights leader Edwin Pratt (1930-1969) was murdered in January 1969, the memorial service at St. Mark's was filled to capacity. He had kind words for the counterculture of the 1960s. St. Mark's became a "center of whirlwinds of change" (The Seattle Times).

Leffler opposed the Vietnam War. After Senators Wayne Morse (D. Oregon) and Ernest Gruening (D. Alaska) lost reelection because of their anti-war votes in the Senate, Leffler said he would be honored to host an appreciation night for them. Leffler organized a draft counseling service for young men and their parents. He hosted a Sunday morning commentary broadcast on KING-TV called "From the Dean's Desk."

Leffler was nearly killed in December 1964 when he was struck by a car while crossing 10th Avenue E. He spent the next year recovering.

His one disappointment was never being elected the Bishop of Olympia, responsible for the Episcopal Church in Washington and Oregon.

Leffler retired from the deanship in October 1971, just short of the mandatory retirement age for the Episcopal Church. When Leffler took over the parish, the biggest statistic was burials. Twenty years later, the biggest statistics were baptisms, and confirmations. By that time, St. Mark's had 1,200 communicants plus an unknown number of other persons who regarded the church as their religious home. "God only knows how many those are," Leffler said (The Seattle Times). He continued to do supply preaching, filling in for absent priests. In 1983, the St. Mark's community center was named the John Leffler House.

John Leffler died of cancer on April 28, 1987. At his request, he was remembered with a memorial service followed by a "bash" (The Seattle Times).


Carol M. Ostrom, "'Clear, Prophetic Voice' of St. Mark's Cathedral is Stilled," The Seattle Times, April 29, 1987, p. D-4; Emmett Murray and Carol M Ostrom, "John Leffler, Noted Churchman Dies," Ibid., April 28, 1987, p. D-14; Charles E. Brown, "Friends Say Goodbye To St. Mark's Dean Emeritus," Ibid., May 6, 1987, p. D-2; Ray Ruppert, "Dean Leffler To Retire At 72 After 'Best Days Of My Life,' " Ibid., March 8, 1971, p. A-4; Earl Hansen, "St. Mark's Dean To Retire," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 26, 1971, p. A-12; Forrest Williams, "Very Rev. J. C. Leffler, Dean of St. Mark's, Will Retire," Ibid., March 8, 1971, p. 10.

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