Very Rev. John C. Kemper, PSS, Dies

When a member of our Province passes on, he leaves a mark. For many, it is as a teacher in the classroom; for others, it is as a formation advisor or spiritual director; for a few, it is as an administrator. Fr. Kemper is among these few.  He may not have been a master teacher, but he was a master builder. With St. Paul, we can say, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds on it.” (1 Cor 3:10) Whenever someone visits the refurbished Sulpician retirement residence, Villa Olier, or tours the beautifully restored St. Mary’s historic chapel on Paca Street, Fr. Kemper will rise from the dead. A dedicated administrator with a warm heart, a good sense of humor, and a gift for building was God’s gift to us in Fr. Kemper.

John Charles Kemper was born in Kulpmont, PA on July 29, 1957 to John and Lois (nee McCabe) Kemper.  He is survived by his mother, Lois, and his three sisters: Georgeann Hyduk, Marsha Williams, and Marion Zakrzewski.

Fr. Kemper was raised and educated in central Pennsylvania, an area that he loved for its simple life and wholesome people.  He returned there frequently to enjoy his personal home (inherited from his aunt), to enjoy time with his family and to remain connected to his home diocese.  Fr. Kemper earned his bachelor’s degree at St. Pius X College Seminary in Erlanger, KY (1979) and then moved on for theological studies at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, MD where he earned the M.Div. and M.A. in 1983. Ten years later, as a Sulpician, he earned the D.Min. from the Pacific School of Religion of the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA (1993).

Fr. Kemper’s journey to the Sulpicians did not follow the common narrative of his era. His seminary studies were done at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, a seminary founded by the Sulpicians but not Sulpician at the time Fr. Kemper studied there. However, Sulpician Fr. James Brennan, P.S.S. who was teaching canon law there at that time, and Fr. Thomas Byrd, a member of the faculty with a high regard for the Sulpicians, encouraged Fr. Kemper to consider the Sulpician ministry as his vocation within his vocation to the priesthood. After ordination to the priesthood for the Diocese of Harrisburg, PA on April 9, 1983, Fr. Kemper did not immediately seek admission to the Sulpicians. He was assigned as an associate pastor at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Camp Hill, PA (1983-1986). After three years in parish ministry, Fr. Brennan’s invitation came to fruition. Fr. Kemper was accepted as a Sulpician candidate. After completing his formation year at Vaugirard in Berkeley, CA (1986-1987), he was assigned to the faculty of St. Joseph’s College, Mountain View, CA (1987-1990). He became a member of the Society in 1989.

After completing his Doctor of Ministry degree in 1993, he embarked on his career in administration—a track from which he was never derailed. While holding the academic rank of associate professor of pastoral theology, he began his administrative duties at SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, MI where, after a year as director of the internship program, he was named vice rector and director of formation for three years (1994-1997). From Michigan he went to Texas to become the director of the D.Min. and the pastoral internship programs for the Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, TX. During this time, he was in residence at Assumption Seminary while sharing duties on the formation faculty (1997-2000).  While on the faculty at Oblate and Assumption, he also chaired the multicultural formation committee for the Province.

After a semester sabbatical in the fall of 2000, the Oblate School of Theology recognized his gifts for administration and assigned him multiple administrative duties through the years 2001-2006. While holding the rank of professor of pastoral theology, Fr. Kemper served as vice president for administrative affairs, the school liaison to the Board of Trustees, and the director of the pastoral year internship and continuing education programs. He also had responsibility for overseeing the Renewal Center on campus, the physical plant, the renovation of the library, human resources, and information technology.  In addition, he chaired the grant writing group (2002), the centennial planning committee (2003-2004), and was on the professional consultation committee for the Clinical Pastoral Education Department of the Baptist Health System (2001-2006).

After a year’s sabbatical (2006-2007), Fr. Kemper came back east to Baltimore to serve the Province in various administrative capacities.  He had already been elected to the Provincial Council in 2003 and served as a consultor for two terms until 2015. In 2007, he was made Provincial Secretary for one year while also serving as the Director of St. Mary’s Spiritual Center & Historic Site on Paca Street, where he resided until 2020. As Director of the Center and Historic Site, he oversaw his first major construction project for the Province – building the visitor’s center and restoring the historic chapel.  While holding the position of Director of the Spiritual Center and Historic Site, he also became the Vice President of Advancement for the Province in 2009.  He held these dual positions until 2015 when he was elected Provincial. As Provincial he oversaw the major renovation of Villa Olier, and the renovation of Providence Hall at Theological College, the new residence for priest-graduate students of CUA doing a “fifth” year at TC. In short, he was at home wearing a hard hat on a building site. He also continued to make a major contribution to the office of Advancement for Theological College, such as in spearheading the fundraising for the Endowed Selner Chair in Liturgy and Sacred Music.

During his time as Provincial, Fr. Kemper not only oversaw the final negotiations with the Little Sisters of the Poor to gain possession of the property for Villa Olier and conduct the major renovation of the Sulpician retirement community but also managed three significant developments in the seminary world for the Province.  The first was the Provincial Council’s decision to withdraw from St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, CA.  On May 13, 2017, Fr. Kemper presided over the “Adieu” event that celebrated our 118 years of service in a spirit of hope amidst sadness and loss. With a dignity befitting the gentlemen of St. Sulpice, Fr. Kemper said farewell to friends and supporters of the church of the west coast as he recommitted the Province to its mission and its future.

The second major event was responding to the invitation by the Archdiocese of San Antonio for the Sulpicians to assume the administration of Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, TX. On November 21, 2017, Fr. Kemper signed an agreement with Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller, MSpS, of San Antonio for the US Province to assume the administration and staffing of Assumption Seminary beginning July 1, 2018.  With this agreement, Fr. Kemper acted on behalf of the Sulpician Fathers in taking a historical step forward in serving the Church in one of its most rapidly growing areas.

The third major event was responding to the invitation of Cardinal Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation of the Evangelization of Peoples and Archbishop Murat, Apostolic Nuncio of Zambia and Malawi, and with the approval of the Sulpician Superior General, Very Rev. Ronald D. Witherup, PSS, for the US Province to undertake responsibility for St. Anthony’s Seminary, Kachebere, Malawi, beginning February 2018. While this event was not marked by formal celebration similar to the one in San Antonio, Fr. Kemper visited Malawi to assist in the transition of a new administration that now expands the Sulpician mission in Africa to include Malawi along with Zambia.  After sizing up the situation there, he returned later with two professors from the University of Nebraska, one to offer technical assistance on running the farm and the other to install internet service on the campus.

With such yeoman service in various administrative capacities, Fr. Kemper gave clear witness that the work of administration is indeed a work of ministry. He accepted without complaint the sacrifices of a life in administration. He engaged in all kinds of details in work that often went unnoticed by the rest of us and often without the support of words of appreciation or thanks.

Yet, he sustained a remorseless work ethic, a prodigious worker to the very end. “Don’t forget,” he would say, as his cancer progressed, “we have more work to do here.” We must number him among those who “get the job done.” As he worked hard, so he expected those under his care to go and do likewise. He had little tolerance for those who did not carry their weight but would wait for the community to carry them. Even weakened by advancing cancer, Fr. Kemper found the means of doing what would have kept more than a few others busy.

He gave selfless service to the network of people and structures that make up the Province. He approached fund-raising as a relational matter.  He called it “making friends” for the Province. He took great delight and satisfaction in watching things physically take shape and in having a hand in making it all happen, especially his three major projects—St. Mary’s Spiritual Center & Historic Site, Villa Olier, and Providence Hall at Theological College.  His love for construction work seems to have been cemented into his DNA for it goes back to his days of working closely with his father making repairs on the rental properties his parents owned and on his own home in Kulpmont. Fr. Kemper loved to see things done and done right.  He was most pleased to see everything run like clockwork and, deep down, he knew that his best chance of this happening was if he was intimately involved in it. One didn’t have to scratch too deep to discover that, to have anything done right, he would prefer to do it himself. While holding onto his vision of the whole as administrators must, he could easily feel overly responsible for everything and so want to control it all. One friend often teased him at such moments by reminding him of his own often repeated adage, “Life is a journey, John.  Life is a journey.”

In serving as an administrator, he was more than affable. He was good-humored and lighthearted. He made administration seem like fun, and the office a fun place to work. He helped to create an atmosphere of relative peace and security so that everyone could carry out his or her responsibilities. He forged an authentic spirit of community in the workplace with his interest in each one and with his good sense of humor. When something would strike him as incongruous with how things normally function, he would always have a clever quip to lighten the heaviness (“Really, I tell ya’ lad, you can’t make this up!”). Rather than getting worked up over the absurdity of things, he usually found a way to face unwelcomed realities, from personnel problems to water leaks at the Villa, without being thrown off track.

Despite his myriad administrative duties, he continued to be engaged in pastoral ministry. He frequently served as a confessor for the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a community with deep historical connections to the Sulpicians. He served as spiritual director for seminarians and would include himself in the mission co-op to preach appeals for money to support our mission in Africa.  He also maintained an active relationship with his home diocese through his frequent visits, keeping in touch with his close friends and classmates from the seminary, and serving on the diocesan seminary board.

In his diverse ministry, he saw small intimations of death, especially as he had to give up being able to keep up with all his commitments. Letting go was hard for him. He did not suffer cancer; he worked with it, as purposefully as possible. After receiving his diagnosis of stage four esophageal cancer with metastasis to the liver in the summer of 2018, he made it clear that, even though his diagnosis assumed that death would not be far ahead, he was not dead yet. He felt the shadow of his diagnosis beside him all the time. He knew that if he turned towards that darkness and embraced it, he’d be lost. So, with his back against the wall and with his desire for consistency in life, he developed an action plan to be as productive as he could be. He was not about to go gently into that good night, to sit back and wait his dismissal. He had work to do.  His plan was to work until he couldn’t. And he did. He kept moving.  Planning. Strategizing. Doing. As long as he kept moving, he could keep death at bay. His fear, it seemed, was that he didn’t know how to be if he didn’t have something to do. Work was his salvation. Even though encouraged by his staff to change the direction of his sails and tack a different course, he held firm to the tiller and sailed into the wind.

He worked prodigiously for the Province—following his schedule of commitments, meetings, and travel. He kept himself open to people, to laughter, and to love—the love that he had for everyone around him, and the love that everyone reciprocated. He strove to keep his sense of humor intact. His willingness to persevere as long as he was able was telling. Our Superior General, Fr. Witherup, observed in his letter announcing Fr. Kemper’s resignation, “All of us who have worked closely with him were impressed, indeed astounded, that he continued his duties much of the time as if nothing had changed. He stayed remarkably active and vibrant, even though, as time went on, the toll of fighting this pernicious disease became more evident.” If Fr. Kemper was burning the candle at both ends then, by the time he died, there was nothing left but the flame.

For over a year and a half, chemotherapy allowed him to work diligently. But in the spring of 2020, the impact of a new, more powerful dose of chemotherapy zapped his energy beyond his imagining. It marked the tipping point in his ability to be attentive to and responsive to what the ministry of Provincial required. Finally, accepting that he couldn’t change the direction of the winds of death, he changed the position of his sails so that he could tack toward peaceful shores.

On Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020, he moved from living alone in his Paca Street residence and moved to the retirement community of Villa Olier. He realized that it was no longer wise to be living alone and have to negotiate stairs and meals on his own. At the Villa, he had a supportive community and the personal and healthcare services that he needed within easy reach.

On April 24, 2020, he submitted his letter of resignation to the General Council through Fr. Ronald Witherup, P.S.S., the Superior General.  It was accepted, effective May 1, 2020.  In the letter of acceptance, Fr. Witherup expressed a sentiment shared by the whole Society when he wrote, “I believe you have been richly blessed by the Lord, though this latest illness is surely a hardship and a suffering. But you have blessed the Province with your talents, your dedication, and your tireless devotion to our Sulpician ministry. Many thanks!”

On May 19, 2020, he was admitted to home hospice with continued residence at the Villa. The old life in him was exhausted. He awaited the coming of the new.  This new life came on May 21 when he died in the late afternoon. If it is true that constancy is a mark of character, then Fr. Kemper embodied this adage to the end. True to the manner of this man, he did not slip away without giving detailed instructions from his death bed of what he wanted for his funeral. Because we were living under the social constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, he knew that we would not be able to gather for a funeral Mass. He requested that he be cremated. When the social restrictions for group gatherings without social distancing were lifted, he wanted a memorial Mass to be celebrated with his cremains first at St. Mary’s chapel at the historic site on Paca Street—the chapel whose renovation he oversaw over a decade before.  After that, he wanted a funeral Mass to be celebrated in his home parish in Kulpmont followed by the interment of his cremains in the family plot at St. Edward’s Cemetery, Shamokin, PA.

Letting go a little at a time and embracing small deaths and big ones, like his resignation as Provincial, was practice for his final letting go into the hands of God where he could be received by an embrace of love beyond his imagining.

Richard M. Gula, P.S.S.
Director of Personnel