Costly Grace: The Story of the Holly Ball Affair and the Reverend George French Kempsell, Jr.
Overview: This is the final, revised, edited version of my five-year research article about Reverend George French Kempsell, Jr., the Holly Ball Affair and what happened to him and his family after they left Scarsdale in 1963.
During the civil rights era, church leaders found themselves in a precarious predicament. They could either embrace current social changes and potentially alienate parishioners who opposed them, or they could remain silent, shutter their churches to the storm raging outside, and ignore social injustices. The choice these leaders made would be an important one, because church membership in the United States had been growing to record levels throughout the 1950‘s. In January 1961, George Kempsell, Jr., rector of the longest-standing church in Scarsdale, New York, asked his congregation to stand up and face discrimination head-on. This decision would have serious repercussions for him and his family, as well as the entire community. Ultimately, he would have to leave this community, even though he’d eventually end up in a rewarding ministry in Arvada, Colorado. In essence, he experienced what The Reverend Timothy J. Keller calls “costly grace”—a sacrificial grace, the kind that Christ experienced on the cross. According to Keller, “costly grace” means “we must live sacrificially as we serve others. Anyone who truly understands how God’s grace comes to us will have a changed life.”# The Reverend Kempsell set himself on a course for costly grace when he acted against members of his congregation who had committed an anti-Semitic act. This is the story of Reverend Kempsell, the Holly Ball Affair and what happened in the aftermath.
On Friday, January 13, 1961, on the front page of the New York Times, just below the fold, appeared a black-and-white photo of The Rev. George F. Kempsell, Jr., rector of the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less, next to the headline: “Scarsdale Parish Rector Limits Communion Due to Anti-Semitism.” The priest stared confidently at the camera. He seemed to be filled with righteous moral certitude, while looking young and approachable in spite of eyeglasses and a receding hairline. The headline stated, “Youth Who Is Convert From Judaism Barred as Escort to Country Club Dance.”
Kempsell had been upset that nineteen-year old Michael Cunningham Hernstadt, a young man whom the rector had baptized two years earlier, had been rejected as an escort to the annual debutante Holly Ball at the Scarsdale Golf Club. On Sunday, January 8, Kempsell preached about the incident, explaining that a young woman in the parish withdrew from the Holly Ball when the dance’s subcommittee rejected her escort due to his “Jewish parentage.” Kempsell then asked his congregation to “face facts boldly” to understand “if our Lord Jesus Christ had come back to earth in Scarsdale in time for the Holly Ball, he would not have been allowed to escort a young lady of this parish to that dance.” Then he rendered his judgment, “This is a sin against God and against a member of this congregation, and no one dares to come to the altar to receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ unless he repents himself of this sin, and is in love and charity with his neighbor, and intends to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking before him in His holy ways.”#
Communion is the Holy Eucharist. It occurs at every Episcopal Church service. It represents the idea that the members of the church congregation are performing an act of contrition and recognition of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind’s sins while at the same time becoming a living example of the body of Christ. For Kempsell, the sacraments of baptism and communion were essential to Christian worship. He had said as much in The Rector’s Word, his monthly letter to the congregation of the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less in November 1959. In that letter he had celebrated the love and acceptance he and his family felt at St. James the Less and remarked that he and the vestry, the church members who handle secular affairs for the parish, had never had a serious disagreement. Thirteen months later, Kempsell had publicly shamed many of his congregation in an effort to call attention to a serious problem in the community: racial and religious bigotry.
The presence of the civil rights movement could be felt even in Scarsdale, New York. During the previous year, young people in the South (and sympathetic northern supporters too) had staged sit-ins and picket lines to protest segregated lunch counters in southern department stores. On the front page of the New York Times, the Holly Ball story had replaced integration rioting that occurred at the University of Georgia, Athens. More positively, the nation prepared for the inauguration of the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.
It would seem that Scarsdale was immune to the strife the South experienced. According to Carol A. O’Connor’s history Scarsdale: A Sort of Utopia: 1891-1981, it was the “wealthiest town in the world’s wealthiest nation.” A 1960 census shows that Scarsdale had a median income four times that of the average American household.
As rector of the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less since 1953, Kempsell had enjoyed the perks that went along with being in charge of the town’s oldest and one of its wealthiest churches. Previous rectors had turned down the Scarsdale Golf Club’s honorary membership, because it was an open secret the club discriminated against non-Protestants. According to St. James the Less church historian Louise Clark, Father Kempsell was known to enjoy dinner at the club.
George French Kempsell, Jr. was a dynamic person. He spoke several languages, played tennis, and was a gifted musician whose calling to the Episcopal Church had pre-empted a career as a concert pianist. His love for music led him to the Westchester Orchestral Society where he served on the society’s board of directors. Although he relished being rector of St. James the Less and its accompanying social status, The Rector of St.James had come from humble beginnings. According to his son, Geff, and his daughter, Martha, their father was the son of English house servants. He grew up in Glen Cove, New York, during an era famously depicted in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels. As a chauffeur for the Whitney family, Kempsell’s father may very well have worn a “robin’s egg blue” chauffeur’s uniform, like the one Fitzgerald described in The Great Gatsby. His mother was the head of the household staff for the French family. Mrs. French had such great admiration for the Kempsells that she had a small cottage built for them.
At Glen Cove public schools, young Kempsell studied music. His love for music and aptitude for the piano, organ and glockenspiel continued as he attended Hamilton College, and then New York Theological Seminary. He put himself through these schools by playing the organ at local church services. In 1946, he graduated from the seminary and married a piano teacher, Ruth Archibald. The couple had six children during the 1950s—five boys including a pair of twins and a daughter.
Although he was attracted to wealth and power, Kempsell never lost his egalitarian sensibility. The ideas of universal brotherhood and equality of all people came naturally to him. Kempsell never forgot what it meant to be an American, to grow up in the land of opportunity, where a chauffeur’s son could rise to be on the same social level of doctors and bank presidents. Every day at the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less, Kempsell passed by two large hand-painted murals depicting the Nicene Creed and the Declaration of Independence expessing the American Creed. The murals were painted by parishioner William Moll, commissioned by the parish’s Eldred family in honor of Dwight Eldred, who had been killed in combat during World War II.
The Nicene Creed, acknowledging one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, was recited during every church service. The American Creed states that all men have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Kempsell believed both creeds had been dishonored by golf club members and those on the Holly Ball subcommittee when they rejected Michael Hernstadt’s admission to the dance. Three of those involved in barring Hernstadt attended the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less.
Kempsell was a frequent guest at the home of Scarsdale resident and fellow Westchester Orchestral Society board member Irving Moskovitz. He struck up a friendship with Irving’s fourteen-year-old son, Peter, who recalls that he was an atheist and that Kempsell offered to convert him. Peter took this to be a joke but appreciated the way Kempsell would engage him in discussion of spiritual matters and answer his questions honestly. According to Peter, “George Kempsell had no taint of religious or racial prejudice. He had no vice of cruelty, hypocrisy, betrayal or misanthropy. If he harbored one of the ‘ordinary vices,’ it was snobbery. His prejudice was money and power, not class (not directly), not race or creed. In this, perhaps, he was a thoroughly modern man.” Thus, Kempsell was bound to run into trouble with certain members of his congregation, an older generation of wealthy Episcopalians who believed in associating socially with only those who held their same religious beliefs and ethnic roots.
Kempsell found a more willing convert in Michael Hernstadt, who lived alone in a large house in Scarsdale. According to Bill Donovan’s documentary film Inheritance, Michael’s father, William, was elderly and had moved with Michael’s mother to Manhattan, leaving their youngest son with a housekeeper who cooked his meals. When Hernstadt was seventeen, Kempsell baptized him and witnessed his confirmation.
The New York Times story on January 13, 1961, did not name Michael Hernstadt but it got an important part of his story wrong: Hernstadt had never been Jewish. He was the son of parents who did not practice religion. Because his father was Jewish and his mother was Catholic, they told their son to choose his own faith. So he became Episcopalian.
Pamela Nottage, the young woman who had wanted to take Michael to the Holly Ball, came from a W.A.S.P. pedigree that suited many at the Scarsdale Golf Club. Her mother, Ruth Nottage, was a member of the Mayflower Society, which meant that she could trace her ancestry back to the Pilgrims.
The W.A.S.P. community in Scarsdale represented an elite that had dominated life in the town since it became a suburb of New York City during the late 19th century. According to Carol A. O’Connor, the town was “socially hostile to Jews,”. Before World War II realtors often refused to show homes to Jews or people with Jewish sounding names.
When the Holly Ball Affair began in Scarsdale, town resident Dean Rusk had just been chosen President-Elect Kennedy’s secretary of state. In his autobiography As I Saw It, Rusk notes, “In Scarsdale there was a pervasive under-the-rug discrimination against Jewish people.” He and his wife lost W.A.S.P. friends and did not join the Scarsdale Golf Club because they did not condone these attitudes.
The Holly Ball began in 1953, the same year Kempsell was installed as rector of the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less. The three matriarchs who founded the ball were Virginia Lustenberger, Louise Fletcher, and Viola Hirtz. Each year the Holly Ball Dance Subcommittee would vet the list of prospective escorts to weed out anyone deemed unsuitable. The list of escorts would then be sent to the Scarsdale Golf Club’s Board of Governors for approval. The board comprised male club members, including Viola’s husband, Theodore S. Hirtz.
A May 1960 Life Magazine article “Living it up on The Debutante Circuit,” provides insight into the mindset of those attending the balls. A young man who was often in demand as an escort because he came from old British oil money told Life, “You must be conservative and carefully groomed. This is what draws the line between real society and the new rich and we will keep them out at all costs. Of course some people these days are buying their way in. I don’t know where it will all end.” Accompanying the article was a photograph of a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Chester Burden of New York City checking the names of escorts against a card catalog of names and backgrounds. According to Life, the central point of a debutante ball was to connect the eligible daughters of wealthy patricians to the eligible sons in the same social circles.
In Scarsdale, new money was often Jewish money. Since the 1940s, Jews had been moving to the town in greater numbers. Furthermore, in 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that restrictive deed covenants that excluded racial and religious groups had no legal basis. Twelve years earlier, The Cockburns, a couple who had purchased a home for $20,000 in Edgemont Hills, a neighborhood bordering Scarsdale just a mile from the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less, were forced to give it up. The house had a covenant that stipulated no Negros could buy it (although they could be employed as servants). Mrs.Cockburn was of mixed parentage and very light skinned, her husband was dark skinned. Although the court recognized that there was no legal definition of what a Negro was, the judge deciding the case used the dictionary definition to find that the Cockburns were negroes because they were ‘colored’ in appearance.
Scarsdale’s demographic changed dramatically between 1940-1960. Carol A. O’Connor estimates that by 1960 Scarsdale was 42% Protestant, 35 % Jewish and 18% Catholic. In spite of this, town residents remained coreligionists, even though the town’s excellent public school system was religiously integrated. While parents worked together for the Parent Teacher Association., they remained separate socially. By 1960, this dichotomy of integrating children of different religions at school, while segregating them socially, had been occurring for twenty years, creating a situation where the children were old enough to date and develop serious feelings for one and other. Thus, it was inevitable the status quo would be challenged.
Louis Lustenberger (husband of Virginia Lustenberger, co-founder of the Holly Ball) was president of W.T. Grant, which had department stores in the deep south with segregated lunch counters that were being targeted by civil rights demonstrators. In April 1960, Lustenberger had been at a stockholders’ meeting in New York when he was questioned by a member of the Congress for Racial Equality about his stores’ segregated lunch counters. According to the New York Times article, “W.T. Grant Defends Racial Bar,” (April 27, 1960), Lustenberger said, “The chain’s policy on serving Negros at its lunch counters was governed completely by local customs. Those are customs we can’t change. As attitudes and customs change, our practices will change promptly.” Similar customs were placed in the public eye after the Reverend Kempsell gave his Holly Ball sermon.
Michael Hernstadt was well known to the congregation of the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less and members of the Scarsdale Golf Club. Pamela Nottage Mueller recalls that she and her mother were surprised when they found out that certain people at a tea prior to the Holly Ball said they did not want Michael to attend the ball. “He was at the club more than I was, often playing golf with friends,” Pam recalls. When asked about his participation at church she exclaimed “he was an acolyte.”
After Kempsell’s sermon became national news, Pamela explained what happened at the tea to Stephen Pelletiere, a journalist for the Denver Post: “Over tea, one of the ladies on the Holly Ball Dance Subcommittee mentioned to Pamela and her mother that they “should bring guests acceptable to the club” Pamela interpreted this to mean “no Jews.” Both she and her mother believed that the ladies on the committee were referring to Michael because his father was Jewish.
After the tea, Pamela planned to return to Middlebury College where she was enrolled as a freshmen. She informed her mother that if the committee didn’t want Michael to attend the ball she would withdraw. Reflecting on her decision fifty years later, Pamela told me, “I was not trying to make a civil rights stand or anything. I just wanted to spend the Christmas holiday with my boyfriend.” Ruth Nottage called her friend Janet Craft, honorary chairman of the Holly Ball that year. Mrs. Craft informed Ruth that Michael would not work out as an escort “on racial grounds because he is Jewish.”#
I spoke with the late Mrs.Craft’s daughter, Carol Ann Craft Schaeffer, also a debutante at the Holly Ball that year. “My mother had nothing against Michael personally. She was just trying to do what she thought the others on the committee expected her to do.” She says that she and Michael had been friends. He had taught her how to drive in exchange for a haircut. “He was a nice boy. He didn’t wear a leather jacket or anything,” Carol Ann recalls. “At the time I didn’t think anything about it. Now I see a correlation with the Barack Obama birth controversy. It’s like they don’t have any other reason to deny a person’s legitimacy so they go after the person’s father. Just say that my mother didn’t have the guts to stand up to the other women on the committee.” After the Reverend Kempsell’s sermon, the people in Scarsdale and its surrounding environs would begin to openly question the legitimacy of the people who had considered themselves the town’s elite since its inception; Protestants who attended Scarsdale’s oldest church, St.James the Less and its oldest country club, The Scarsdale Golf Club.
Ruth Nottage was dismayed by the reaction of the dance subcommittee to Michael Hernstadt. He was a frequent dinner guest at the Nottage home. She had to iron his high school graduation gown the previous year because he had no one else to do it for him and didn’t know how. His parents didn’t bother to attend the event. Regarding the Holly Ball, Pamela had simply said she wasn’t going, so Ruth informed her friends on the committee that her daughter had withdrawn and would not “come out” on December 27.
Eighteen other debutantes did come out. The event was covered extensively by The Scarsdale Inquirer and a five paragraph article on page twenty-five of The New York Times. The Times reported that the young women “wore long white ball gowns, long white gloves and sparkling rhinestone tiaras. They carried sprays of holly.” It was the seventh annual Holly Ball but it was not going to be a lucky number seven.
Weather predictions for New Year’s Day 1961 had called for snow, but it fell further upstate canceling church services. In Scarsdale the New Year dawned in a cold damp mist. After the morning service, the Reverend Kempsell was taken aside by a parishioner from his congregation who told him about the Holly Ball Dance Subcommittee’s rejection of Michael Hernstadt as an escort. This parishioner had been baptized Episcopalian at a young age but his birth parents were Jewish. In fact the parishioner’s birth mother had left Nazi Germany just as the laws depriving German Jews of their civil rights, The Nuremberg Laws, were passed. Referring to the Holly Ball, the parishioner asked the Rector to “keep the matter in mind.”#
The following weekend, Kempsell made phone calls to the parties involved with the recent Holly Ball. Three of the members of the Holly Ball Dance Subcommittee and at least two of the club’s ruling Board of Governors belonged to St. James the Less Episcopal Church. There is no record of what was said during the telephone conversations. Father Kempsell took umbrage that anyone of good character would be determined undesirable due to faith or race. He would note in his sermon that he respected the fact that a private club was free to make its own rules and regulations. He would also note that as the rector of the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less, he had to answer to a higher authority. Kempsell was duty-bound to react to what had happened to a young man he had baptized and seen confirmed in front of a Bishop, who in fact supported him in speaking out.
According to his New York Times obituary by Joseph Berger, Bishop Horace W.B. Donegan had taken several civil rights stands during his decade-long tenure as the Episcopal bishop of New York. Bishop Donegan called for his church to recognize its “sins of segregation.” Upon becoming Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese in New York in 1950, Donegan had insisted that attention be given to the impoverished black and Latino neighborhoods of Manhattan. He took money to be used for the Episcopal Cathedral of St.John the Divine and used it for programs to help New York City’s poor. He took public stands against segregation, Apartheid in South Africa and prayer in public schools. When John F. Kennedy was running for President, Bishop Donegan stated in a sermon that Kennedy’s Catholicism should have no bearing on whether the public should vote for him or not. George Kempsell must have known that he would have his superior’s full support as he dealt with his congregation’s bigotry against a fellow parishioner.
The fact that Kempsell had prepared a statement for the press served as evidence to many at the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less that he handled the matter of the Holly Ball in a manner that was too public. Headlines in the local Scarsdale Inquirer and the New York Times that claimed that the rector of an Episcopal Church in Scarsdale, New York, had excommunicated parishioners for an act of anti-Semitism, certainly shamed those associated within the church and the golf club.
In An American Dilemma, his two-volume masterwork about racism in the United States, sociologist Gunnar Myrdal studied life under Jim Crow in the segregated south. He had specifically written about the need for “publicity” to shine a light on racial bigotry in the United States. Publicity would force Americans who valued the American Creed to confront the problem of segregation and the denial of civil rights to African Americans. Myrdal’s seminal work was a cornerstone of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision that made segregation in public schools illegal.# The Reverend Kempsell would find the same call for publicity in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. He quoted it to John W. Stevens in the page one New York Times article about his Holly Ball sermon: “If among those who come to be partakers of the Holy Communion the minister shall know any…to have done any wrong to his neighbors by word or by deed, so that the congregation be thereby offended; he shall advertise him, that he presume not to come to the Lord’s Table, until he have openly declared himself to have truly repented and amended his former evil life….” By barring Hernstadt from the dance for being “Jewish,” those on the Holly Ball Committee and the other club members who had remained silent had sinned because they did not recognize the fact that Hernstadt had been baptized. Sinners are not allowed to receive communion unless they have acknowledged their sin. Reverend Kempsell had ascertained that they had not; so he was duty-bound to forbid them communion.
No one likes to be publicly shamed. In this case the people who were shamed were wealthy and powerful. They had reason to believe that what occurred at their place of worship and at their private club should have been handled privately. St. James the Less was a “high” church, and the Reverend Kempsell and Bishop Donegan were viewed, in the way Catholic priests and bishops are, as special conduits to God who had exceptional power over their flock in matters of faith and life. But as an Episcopal rector, Kempsell was a paid employee of the members of St. James the Less. He was going out on a limb as he prepared his Holly Ball sermon and his statement to the press. He had the power to punish members of his congregation for bigotry, but they would have the power to punish him for shaming them. The church members paid the reverend’s salary, provided him with a car and a home on Rochambeau Road, just around the corner from St. James the Less. No one better understood the power of the purse than the citizens of Scarsdale and the other towns and neighborhoods of Westchester County where the congregants of St. James resided.
The son of one of the Scarsdale Golf Club’s Governors in 1960 remains angry with Reverend Kempsell to this day. His family was not in church for the sermon but he has strong feelings about what happened. “My mother used to joke that St .James the Less was jinxed. There had been a lot of problems with previous rectors. Two left for the Catholic church, and then Kempsell. As he delivered that sermon, club members stood up and just walked out. Some never came back. A lot of money left that church as a result of what he did. The truth is some old lady called Mrs. Nottage on the telephone and said Michael couldn’t come to the dance because he was Jewish. Most of the membership didn’t know what was going on with the Holly Ball. The Reverend Kempsell needlessly dragged the club through the mud. He ended up in obscurity somewhere and rightfully so.”
At the time, the key issue for many members of the golf club was the idea that as a private club it was their business who could attend as a guest. For them, the Holly Ball sermon represented an invasion of their privacy.
Once the story appeared on page one of The New York Times, it spread like wild fire. The story went out on the wire services, appearing in newspapers across the nation under the headline “Youth Barred from Country Club Because He is Jewish.” Time, Newsweek and Life magazines all sent reporters to cover the story.
Life magazine portrayed the Holly Ball story with a photo spread containing the headline Rebuked for Bigotry. Photos included the Reverend Kempsell standing on the icy sidewalk outside his church with his neighbor the Suffragan Bishop of Westchester J. Stuart Wettmore outside St. James the Less; high school yearbook photos of Pamela Nottage and Michael Hernstadt; and a beautiful photo of the 1960 Holly Ball debutantes. The machinations of adults had created the Holly Ball Affair, but it was the young people who paid the price. The debutantes would forever be linked with bigotry, despite the fact that none of them had any power over what happened.
Time Magazine’s report was accompanied by another report from Virginia, where two bishops were being forced to apologize for calling members of the Episcopal Church’s Committee for Racial Equality “communists” because they had recommended an end to miscegenation laws that forbid marriage between whites and Negros in eleven states.
Newsweek took a tongue-in-cheek approach to the story in its January 23 issue: “Scarsdale is a community of business executives and professional men located in Westchester County, 40 minutes from midtown New York. Here some 18,000 Christians and Jews live in peace and the familiar pattern of mutually agreeable segregation. The Country Clubs are Separate and Equal.” Newsweek noted that Kempsell’s telephone was constantly ringing as a result of the controversy and that he had never engaged in any public controversy before. He reiterated his central reason for his action: “there is no such thing as a second class Christian.”
Television news crews and reporters descended upon St. James the Less Church and the Nottage home in the Edgemont Hills section of Hartsdale because Ruth Nottage was identified as the mother of the girl who had withdrawn from the ball. She had told New York Times reporter John W. Stevens that she was proud of the way her daughter Pam and her rejected escort Michael Hernstadt had handled the situation. Her husband Paul Nottage had stated that Kempsell was “a true man of God.” Stevens reported that the church was filled to capacity for Kempsell’s 11 a.m. service and that everyone he spoke to supported the rector’s actions. Stevens followed up his page-one story on the Holly Ball with four more stories, all detailing support of Kempsell’s Holly Ball stand by Episcopal Church leaders and ministers of other Christian faiths.
The story played out nationally as well. The Salt Lake City Tribune ran the story on page five next to a photograph of Nazis picketing the opening of the film Exodus at the Saxon Movie Theater in Boston, Massachusetts. In Kentucky, the Middleboro Daily News noted that “sophisticated Scarsdale, N.Y., was abusing the principle of brotherhood among men in the same way as the people of New Orleans who jeered a little black girl for attending an integrated preschool. The Colorado Springs Gazette was able to get a quote from Michael Hernstadt, who was back at school at the University of Boulder. Michael’s response to the commotion in Scarsdale was worthy of those on the front lines of the civil rights movement. “I bear no grudges against those country club people. Some of my best friends are members. I would be discriminating myself if I had any hard feelings…I’ve learned to live with this kind of thing. Anybody with a Jewish parent does.” In a sad, strange way, Michael was still dealing with the fact that his chosen faith was not recognized by the world at large. In print he was described as Jewish, even though he was Christian, his mother was Catholic and his family had never engaged in religious worship. He truly had been victimized by the same type of ethnic stereotyping employed by the Nazis. When asked by Times reporter Stevens about the Holly Ball Affair, Rabbi David Greenberg explained, “The issue is racial, not religious. No Jew could have escaped the camps by becoming a Christian.” Upon winning a school desegregation case in the nearby town of New Rochelle, one of the nine plaintiffs, Mrs. Wilbert Taylor said she hoped that the victory “would end Northern-brand segregation…and I hope it works in Scarsdale and other places too.” Scarsdale had become known as a town full of haters.
At the time of the Holly Ball, Kempsell’s choir director at St. James the Less was Robert Roth. I spoke with his wife Nancy Roth in October 2010. She informed me that after the Holly Ball sermon and the attention it brought to Scarsdale, “you didn’t want people to know that you were from Scarsdale. For a long time afterwards, I wouldn’t let people know where I was from. There was quite a stigma attached to it.”
Through it all, the Scarsdale Golf Club’s President Charles S. McAllister and the Board of Governors remained silent. McAllister had told John W. Stevens that he would have no comment on Reverend Kempsell’s sermon, reminding the reporter that he had stated in the sermon that the golf club was private and therefore had the right to make its own policies. But as January progressed it became evident that a wound had been opened in the town of Scarsdale. Angry letters criticizing the golf club appeared in the Scarsdale Inquirer. Area residents decried religious prejudice and applauded the Reverend Kempsell. Theodore Tannenwald, a local Democrat, referenced the Cold War, pointing out that America was engaged in a “deadly worldwide struggle…our success in that struggle will depend on the image which was as a nation reflected to the world at large…Intolerance evinced by the Scarsdale Golf Club’s policies can only help to destroy that image.” Peggy Comfort was dismayed by “the fantastic underhanded segregation” that existed in the North, “not just by color but by creed.” Another resident wondered why a discriminatory country club, the actual location of which was over the town line in Hartsdale, should be allowed to call itself the Scarsdale Golf Club. In its second editorial on the matter, the Scarsdale Inquirer lamented, “the storm arising out of the disclosure that a youth of Jewish background had been denied admittance to the Holly Ball has raged over Scarsdale for a week, and has focused the attention of the nation on the village to an extent unequaled in its history…unless steps are taken by the leaders of Scarsdale the bitterness engendered over the holidays will remain for a long time.” The Inquirer was sadly prescient. Although he was only an elementary school student at the time, Eric Dentler’s recollection of Scarsdale during the 1960’s is that “the lovely little town was very divided.” Dentler’s father, Robert, was a professor of sociology at Columbia University. Robert Dentler had great distaste for the genteel prejudice practiced by the members of country clubs. An outspoken proponent of the need for integration between mostly black urban schools and white suburban schools, Dentler would move his family to the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, in 1971. He became the architect of Boston’s controversial school desegregation plan that had been ordered by Federal Court Judge Arthur Garrity.
The Scarsdale Golf Club’s leadership read the writing on the wall. An emergency meeting of the club’s board of governors was held on Saturday, January 21, 1961. Twelve of the fifteen governors attended the meeting, which lasted for ninety minutes. They voted 9-3 to draft “a letter of clarification” to all of the club member families. Holly Ball founder Viola Hirtz’s husband Theodore cast one of the votes in support of the letter which was meant to clarify the fact that the club had no formal rules barring guests on the basis of race or religion. Charles S. McAlister called John W. Stevens at the New York Times to inform him of the club’s decision. When Stevens asked if the letter of clarification meant that members of the club could invite anyone to the Scarsdale Golf Club regardless of race, creed or color, McAlister responded, “My answer would have to be, yes.”
The Holly Ball Affair had lasted for just three weeks but it had a profound influence on life in Scarsdale. The Democratic Committee of Scarsdale’s governing body, the Town Club, passed a resolution supporting Kempsell’s brave stand against bigotry and tried to pass a resolution that would have prohibited any member of the Holly Ball Dance Subcommittee or Scarsdale Golf Club Board of Governors from holding public office in town. Republican leader Harry Parker Quinn told the Scarsdale Inquirer that Kempsell and the young man barred from the Holly Ball had his full sympathy and support but that the Democratic Town Committee was committing an equally egregious act by trying to bar certain people from public office. Quinn felt that the Democrats on the Town Club were behaving just like the people at the golf club whose actions they deplored. People started suggesting the need for a public pool in which everyone could enjoy during the hot summer months.
The Scarsdale Pool, a public pool open to all town residents was eventually built. The following Christmas, the first public unrest regarding the display of the Nativity during the Christmas holiday occurred when The Hartsdale School Board chose not to display the crèche at Hartsdale Jr.High. According to a December 1961 editorial in The Scarsdale Inquirer the creche had been displayed at Hartsdale Jr.High for the past 20 years.In its editorial on the subject, The Inquirer noted that relations between Catholics, Protestants and Jews were more tense than they had ever been. This may have been partially due to the Reverend Kempsell’s Holly Ball sermon and the attention it recieved. It is one thing for members of a religious group to maintain separateness by choice but quite another to feel that one’s child has been ostracized as an inferior due to a parent’s religious background. Eleven months earlier The Inquirer had dubbed the relationship between members of different faiths “ polite non-intercoure” Now resentment over the status quo and the genteel bigotry that accompanied it had been brought to the surface. Perhaps this was a necessary step to a more religiously pluralistic relationship between members of different faiths.
In Scarsdale, the argument over whether the crèche could be displayed on public property would run hot and cold for the next twenty years. A case was brought to the Supreme Court in 1985. According to a 28 March 1985 article in The New York Times, the court deadlocked 4-4 so a lower court ruling allowing the creche to be displayed on public property on the basis of freedom of speech was allowed to stand. No legal precedent regarding the display of the creche on public property was established.
Holly Ball founder Virginia Lustenberger’s husband Louis would be true to his words regarding W.T.Grant’s desire to end its segregated policies at its southern stores. W.T. Grant became the first company to put an African-American on its board of trustees#. Lustenberger was adamant that Asa. T.Spalding had excellent qualifications for the appointment and that he was chosen due to his business acumen. Spalding had been the President of North Carolina Mutual Insurance, an Insurance Company that had amassed $112 Million in assets by the mid 1960‘s#.
The Reverend George French Kempsell’s life would be forever altered by the Holly Ball Affair. At first he was a celebrity. The Episcopal Diocese sent him to make speeches at religious clubs in New York City. The vestry of St. James the Less passed a resolution of support for him in March 1961 with two members absent and one abstaining. But 81 members left St. James the Less in the wake of the Holly Ball Affair. Eighty-one new members joined, but there was a difference between those who arrived and those who left. Many of those who left were rich, and they took their money with them. Though these people did not make any public statements about their feelings regarding Reverend Kempsell, they let their money speak for them, donating to another Episcopal church, St. Joseph of Arimethea.
The Kempsell family’s life was upended in the wake of Father Kempsell’s sermon. He and his family received death threats. The F.B.I. became involved, and the Kempsells were removed from their home under police escort and relocated to an undisclosed location for ten days. The Reverend Kempsell was instructed to keep the matter private because it was feared that news of the threats would encourage others to do likewise. Upon returning to the house on Rochambeau Road, the Reverend Kempsell felt compelled to purchase a large Irish Wolfhound whom the family named Jerva. Reverend Kempsell’s niece, Constance, recalls that Jerva had a habit of jumping on the uniformed policemen assigned to guard the Kempsell’s home that winter. Kempsell was hurt that more people at St. James the Less did not offer support or understanding, although many others locally and nationally had applauded him. Church historian Louise Clark suggests that many in the congregation agreed with Reverend Kempsell, but they felt he had been “too public.”
Reverend Kempsell had behaved in a provocative way in regard to the Holly Ball Affair. His actions were important, however. Peter Moskovitz recalls segregation between Christians and Jews during the 1950s to be absolute. In an e-mail, Peter said this about Kempsell’s actions, “It’s probably well to ask if the impact on the community would have been the same had he held a series of well reasoned meetings with the vestry and with those of his parishioners involved in the Golf Club’s decision. Not much, I warrant.’
The depth of bigotry that existed within the membership of the Episcopal Church in 1961 is best evidenced by a typed letter to Kempsell from a former parishioner named Chaloner Robinson, who wrote his letter on his personal stationery, which revealed that his street address was Lord’s Highway and his state of residence Connecticut. Robinson expressed disdain for Reverend Kempsell’s Holly Ball stand by citing eight reasons why “the young man” (Michael Hernstadt) should have been barred from the ball. “The youth’s apostasy is a form of expediency for social climbing. You don’t have experience of doing business with the race. A prominent Jewish leader has the audacity to bear the same last name as my own Scottish patronym. Asiatics are like railroad tracks, you can coexist with them but there should be no touching. This is part of a gate-crashing plan in Scarsdale. Step one, take a British name (against the law in some places) then become a Christian Scientist or an Episcopalian. Any club has the right to associate with their own kind. Can you excommunicate the entire Junior League? Interlopers are not welcome. This is an unalienable right. Your Jewish youth knew exactly what he was doing. A back door admission. He could care less that his escort faced rebuke. That’s the way they do things. Too many generations away form good manners. You are sincere but unwise. Christ would not have made it out to the golf club. He would have been arrested for vagrancy at Grand Central Station. Jews have their own sub groups: Einsteins and Cardozas, Cohens and Schines. We don’t want to be part of their clubs, with their too many mink coats. We don’t want to be part of the crowd on Riverside Drive, where the tribe gathers to celebrate the ones who made it and moved to the suburbs. This publicity is just their meat and you’ve served the meal. I am sick and tired of the sinuous antics of three percent of the population and deplore their ability to dupe a gullible few to pull their chestnuts from the fire. Your’s very truly, Chaloner T. Robinson.”
George F.Kempsell Jr. was ahead of his times. In 1964, a resolution was passed at the Episcopal General Convention in St. Louis, rejecting the idea of deicide, the belief that the Jews had murdered Jesus Christ. The church apologized for promoting “loveless attitudes” towards Jews.
Father Kempsell had written in one of his monthly letters to the congregation that for him, hell was the absence of God. The situation he faced regarding Michael Hernstadt’s being barred from the Holly Ball presented him with an earthly view of this hell, right in the bucolic, entitled atmosphere of Scarsdale, New York, within the walls of his own church. He acted swiftly and with a vengeance. Two years later he would pay the price for his actions.
Although he was a hero to many after the Holly Ball Affair, Kempsell’s relationship with the congregation of the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less was never the same. He stopped writing his monthly letter The Rector’s Word, which he had written every month for seven and a half years.
In March 1961, the Reverend Kempsell issued a message for Lent from Bishop Donegan. The reprinted message appeared in The Pacific Stars and Stripes on March 24, 1961. It shows that Kempsell was committed to the idea of universal brotherhood. At his church and for Christians everywhere he called for action, “the spirt of man, in order to grow and mature, must accept new challenges and responsibilities,” Kempsell wrote. “It is my hope that Christians throughout the world observing Lent will daily offer this prayer, written and authorized by the Rt. Rev. Horace W .B. Donegan, bishop of New York. ‘Oh God the Father, creator of all races, nations and peoples, we pray thee…take away prejudice and ignorance and all those evils which keep us apart and embitter life… God’s Kingdom cannot come, nor his will be done until every man acknowledges God as the Father and every person of all races, nations and peoples as his brother. Peace in the world begins with the love of the soul for God and goodwill in our hearts for our fellow men.”
It is clear from this message that Father Kempsell was following the lead of his superior, Bishop of New York Horace W .B. Donegan when he acted against those in his congregation who had rejected Michael Hernstadt from the Holly Ball. He agreed with his Bishop wholeheartedly, but he was also doing what any good employee would do, carry out his boss’s wishes. Recalling “those sad times” fifty years later, Reverend Kempsell’s son Geff stated that even without the support of his superiors “he still would have done it.”
According to the Reverend Kempsell’s niece, the Reverend Constance Coles, the Episcopal Church was at the beginning of an evolution that continues to this day. The church was transitioning from a church of the wealthy to a church concerned with the society at large. This change was occurring as a result of the mindset of men like Bishop Donegan and the Reverend Kempsell, first generation Americans who believed that the bigotry that existed in American society was a threat to the nation and to true Christian worship.
The Reverend Kempsell remained committed to the righteousness of his Holly Ball stand, even though it resulted in members of his congregation and members of the Scarsdale Golf Club feeling shamed. Those who felt shamed were intractable in their belief that the rector of St. James the Less had gone too far. A collision was bound to occur. It was just a matter of when.
Father Kempsell enjoyed being known as the brave minister who stood against bigotry in his own congregation. He continued to be an enthusiastic tennis player. He also relished water skiing on family trips to his cabin on Kezar Lake, Maine. These facts were revealed in an October 1962 New York Times article by Merrill Folsom, “Versatile Rector in Concert Role.” The article features a photo of St. James the Less parishioner Cab Calloway singing while Reverend Kempsell played the piano. Calloway enjoyed having the rector come up on stage with him to play piano during local concerts. Cab’s youngest daughter, Laelle, spoke with me by phone in November 2010. She was just a little girl in 1962, but she remembers St. James the Less as a welcoming place where she experienced acceptance.
Folsom wrote the story about Kempsell for the Times because he had become chairman of the board for the Westchester Orchestral Society. He had helped raise it from an amateur group of musicians who had practiced in a high school gymnasium to a professional orchestra that was going to perform at a United Nations Day Concert at the Westchester County Center. The other board members had asked Kempsell to read the narrative from Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Symphony during the performance. They felt it was only fitting given their chairman’s role in the Holly Ball Affair. “The dogmas of the quite past are inadequate to the stormy present…we must think anew and act anew…we must disenthrall ourselves, and then we will save our country.” These were Abraham Lincoln’s words. Many people believed they applied in 1962 as much as they had one hundred years earlier.
Nancy Moore (who later became the Reverend Nancy Roth) had known Reverend Kempsell for several years. He had introduced her to her husband Robert after hiring him as his organist and choir director. In fact, he had coaxed her to return to Scarsdale after her graduation from college by boldly stating to her that he had just hired her future husband. The Reverend Kempsell had baptized her son, and Nancy was the godmother to Kempsell’s only daughter, Martha. Nancy believes that Kempsell’s relationship with his colleagues at St.James the Less changed after The Holly Ball Affair. Reverend Wayne Schmidt was hired by Kempsell in 1960. During an interview conducted on 3 October, 2012 Schmidt recalled that his former boss seemed to be insecure, perhaps intimidated by the type of people in his congregation; some of them were powerful people who were used to getting their way. Reverend Kempsell had not always been like this.
When Father Kempsell had been in charge of Nancy’s youth group during the early 1950s, he was fun loving and impetuous. Surely being the father of six young children had changed him. Caught up in the moral and spiritual imperatives of the civil rights movement and its relationship to his ministry at St. James the Less had changed him too. But once a person has had his life and the lives of his wife and children threatened as the result of his work, he can never feel completely secure in the place where these threats occurred. Kempsell could never be completely certain that his life and the lives of his wife and children were safe. Instead of giving in to it, he became more outgoing with the expression of his beliefs, more demanding of those around him. The Merrill Folsom article depicted Kempsell as the energetic, steadfast rector who put his congregation in line after the Holly Ball two years earlier. This did not sit well with those at St. James the Less who harbored resentment. In December, when new vestry members were elected, they acted against their outspoken rector.
Four members of the vestry of St. James met for lunch in Manhattan to discuss their church’s finances. Convinced that “deficit spending” had occurred since the Holly Ball Affair, they agreed to take charge of the church’s finances. They planned to send out a letter to the entire St. James membership explaining that the church was in poor financial shape and donations were needed.
Reverend Kempsell was devastated when he found out about this meeting. On paper the church had the same amount of money for expenditures as it always had, but probably its endowment had declined when wealthier members left. The implication that his church needed to take this action hurt him, and he found the idea of asking for money humiliating. The vestry notes of January 7, 1963, dutifully recorded by church secretary John T. Van Der Heide, reveal that Father Kempsell told the vestry that the associate rectors and some of his friends on the vestry all knew how hurt he was. The meeting continued until 12:45 a.m. Later that morning, Reverend Kempsell met with one of the church wardens and spoke with Bishop Donegan by telephone. It was agreed that he and the vestry were at an impasse. Father Kempsell had to admit that the parish of St. James “was not as happy as it should be.” The mailing was cancelled when Reverend Kempsell agreed to tender his resignation, which was formally announced on January 14, 1963. The Holly Ball Affair had occurred exactly two years earlier. Seventy-two letters and 42 telegrams were submitted asking Father Kempsell to stay, but that represented only 10 percent of the church’s membership.
Kempsell had done something that would ultimately benefit the town of Scarsdale. He had exposed bigotry, which had been a part of everyday life. He had called attention to the fact that this bigotry was so evil, hollow and ridiculous that it had harshly cast out a fellow Christian to maintain social purity. The rector had caused the town of Scarsdale and some of its elite citizenry to look foolish and mean in the eyes of the nation at a time when Americans were just waking up to the idea that bigotry was contrary to the American Creed. By speaking up, Kempsell was cast out.
No one with any influence in the community came to Reverend Kempsell’s defense. Bishop Donegan agreed with the church warden that St. James the Less needed a new rector. The Scarsdale Inquirer was under new ownership. Since 1960, Scarsdale’s local newspaper had covered the Holly Ball more thoroughly and in a more celebratory way than it had before the Holly Ball Affair. An editorial in The Inquirer speculated that the Holly Ball had nothing to do with the differences between Reverend Kempsell and the vestry of St. James the Less.
Those in town who applauded Reverend Kempsell’s outspokenness felt certain that his departure from Scarsdale was related to the Holly Ball Affair, which had occurred two years earlier. Peter Moskovitz states, “He knew full well the social, political and economic power of the people he was dealing with; and he should have known that underhanded revenge would be theirs.” Geff Kempsell was eleven years old in 1963. Fifty years later, he recalls the two years in Scarsdale with almost visceral anguish, and even though he was just a child, he understood the tension that existed at St. James the Less between his father and those in his church who were furious with him. About the incident, Geff surmised, “They finally got him.”
At the time, the W.A.S.P. way to deal with conflict was not to scream and yell; it was to patiently wait for the chance to wield economic power and then be done with the offending party. Until the time was ripe, cold silence was the order of the day. Ruth Nottage, whose daughter Pam had withdrawn from the ball back in 1960, had experienced this first-hand during the winter of 1961. Because she had been named in the New York Times as the person who had spoken with Reverend Kempsell about events surrounding Michael Hernstadt’s rejection, Ruth’s friends at the Scarsdale Golf Club refused to speak to her. According to her daughter Cynthia Nottage, Ruth became so distraught over events surrounding the Holly Ball that she experienced a mild heart attack. By the summer of 1961, Ruth’s time in purgatory was over so far as her “friends” at the golf club were concerned. People at the club had shunned her because they believed The Holly Ball Affair would cause the termination of The Holly Ball. Once club members realized the Holly Ball was going to continue, Ruth was invited back on the “adults only” sun deck to play bridge with her friends.
The Kempsell family was given two month’s use of their car and the house on Rochambeau Road. Money was raised to make their departure easier. This presented a chance for the Kempsells to achieve a lifelong goal. They traveled to Europe for a few weeks without their six children. Upon returning, George had with him a large
bronze sculpture called Golgotha. The sculpture depicts a cross, a workbench with a saw laid next to it and a dove flying at the top. Christ was crucified at Golgotha, the place of the skull. The sculpture Golgotha depicted the workings of mankind amidst the sufferings of the Christian savior—a pattern that appeared to continue to present day. Reverend Kempsell would display the sculpture at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Dallas, Texas—his new home.
While Kempsells were in Europe, two religious commentators had called out the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less and Christians, in general, for what had happened in Scarsdale. In his syndicated World of Religion column, Louis Cassels wrote, “The South is evidently not the only part of the country in which a minister may jeopardize his job by speaking out boldly against prejudice.” A community newspaper, The White Plains Reporter Dispatch, said it was “reported that the vestry was worried about continuing decline in church membership since the golf club incident” and the departure from the congregation of some “important financial supporters.” A representative of St .James the Less took issue with the decline in membership as stated in the Scarsdale Inquirer, but he did not address the loss of important financial supporters.
The Christian Century issued an angry rebuttal to U.S. Peace Corps Director R. Sargent Shriver, who had stated at the first ever National Conference on Religion and Race# that he was concerned that a person could attend church every Sunday and never hear the issue of civil rights addressed from the pulpit. The editorial detailed Reverend Kempsell’s recent experiences in Scarsdale, noting that he and his wife and six children had been ultimately kicked onto the street for speaking out. The editorial ended by asking, “Does this answer your question, Sargent Shriver?”
Geff Kempsell has vivid memories of his family’s relocation to Dallas,Texas. The family left Scarsdale in March when the trees were bare and there was snow on the ground. In Texas, he had expected to see cowboys and Indians and stagecoaches as depicted by the John Wayne movies on television. Instead he noticed that wildflowers were already in bloom alongside the highway. His family moved into a much larger home than the one they had in Scarsdale. Geff was given his own apartment above the garage.
The Reverend Kempsell was hoping for redemption, and it seemed symbolic that his first sermon at his new church coincided with Easter Sunday. He told The Dallas Morning News, “Our Lord ministers to us through the Word and the Sacraments. One of the weaknesses in the Episcopal Church is that so many priests regard preaching as secondary.” He was not recalcitrant. He believed he handled the affairs in Scarsdale correctly. The article noted that his new church was an “impressive plant”. Geff remembers that it was a church that displayed its wealth openly, recalling “gold on the walls.” Reverend Kempsell put his Golgotha sculpture on the wall in the church’s entryway. It would remain there during his two and a half years he served as rector. Then it mysteriously disappeared once he and his family left.
The Reverend Kempsell did all he could to be a dutiful rector at St. Michael and All
Angels. He was expected to do a lot of hobnobbing at local country clubs as part of the church’s fundraising efforts. Kempsell was an extrovert, who was more talkative with a crowd of people or strangers than among his own children, his daughter, Martha, recalls. According to The Dallas Morning News obituary of Reverend Kempsell in 1980, St. Michaels would become, during his tenure, the wealthiest church in its diocese.
But all was not well in Dallas or within the Kempsell household. Their Irish Wolfhound, Jerva, could not withstand the Texas heat. She died during the family’s first summer in Texas. Ruth Kempsell was diagnosed with breast cancer within a month of arriving in Texas. She survived but refused to participate in any country club fundraising. She said that she just needed to raise her six children, but likely Ruth was fed-up with country clubs.
Geff Kempsell found public middle school in Dallas to be a culture shock. He was regarded as a “Yankee.” He was shocked at the hostility his peers at school expressed towards President Kennedy and the civil rights movement. On November 22, President and Mrs. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, were coming to Dallas as part of the president’s re-election campaign. At a luncheon scheduled that day, Kempsell was asked to deliver the convocation. However, instead of reading the prayer, Reverend Kempsell bore the sad duty to tell the crowd that their president had been shot.
On March 2,1964, Reverend Kempsell was again mentioned in a page one article in The New York Times, “Ruby to Testify, Lawyers Decide,” by Homer Bigart. The previous day he had given a sermon decrying the hostility that existed in Dallas and the nation: “Any of us who listened to the vicious hate mongering things that were said about President Kennedy shared in creating an atmosphere in which Oswald’s dastardly deed could take place.” Father Kempsell remained implacable in his beliefs about the need for Christians to change the way they had previously thought. A year later, he helped to stage a Spring concert for the Episcopal Diocese to raise money for eight charitable agencies. Again he performed the narrative to Copland’s Lincoln Symphony. Again he and his family were moving.
The Kempsells left Dallas due to “social pressures,” according to Geff Kempsell. Both the vestry of St. Michaels and All Angels and Reverend Kempsell agreed that he should seek another church. The vestry was dismayed that Ruth Kempsell would not participate in country club activities. Ruth was dismayed that they wouldn’t leave her alone to raise her children.
This time the family moved to a small church in Arvada, Colorado. Christ the King Church offered the Kempsells a small bungalow with an unfinished basement. Geff Kempsell, fifteen, had to share a room with two of his brothers. Arvada shared nothing in common with Scarsdale, New York or North Dallas, Texas. It was a farm town that had been known as “The Celery Capital” before becoming a bedroom community of Denver. George French Kempsell thrived at Christ the King.
Carol Johnson has been a congregant at Christ the King for many years. During a telephone interview, in Spring 2011, she fondly recalled her late friend and former rector: “George French Kempsell was Man of the Year in Arvada. Whenever the police needed a minister they called him. Everyone loved him. He was kind and generous and open to everyone.” Kempsell increased the membership of Christ the King. He was devoted to his congregation. When Carol gave birth to a baby boy with Spina Bifida, Father Kempsell came to see her every day. He baptized the child, which had only a few months to live. Carol told him that there was another mother with a sick baby who could not get her child baptized by the Catholic Church. The Reverend Kempsell agreed to perform the baptism. It appears that he found a way to personally minister to his congregants. He remained socially committed to the disadvantaged, maintaining a close relationship with the local food bank. To this day, people stop Geff Kempsell in the streets of Arvada to let him know how much his father meant to the community.
During the mid 1970s, the Reverend Kempsell developed prostate cancer. His congregation came to his support, badgering Bishop of Colorado Frye to make him a Rt. Reverend so that his large family could be assured of proper benefits. Ruth Kempsell was diagnosed with bone cancer a short time later. Although she was given only a short time to live, she managed to keep going. Geff Kempsell sees it as her lifelong devotion to her husband, who had shown Carol Johnson his wedding picture and said, “ she’s more beautiful than the day I married her.”
Despite his illness, the Reverend Kempsell was faced with one last civil rights issue. Women were being ordained as Episcopal priests and his niece Constance wanted to become one. He confided to Carol Johnson, “I’m afraid that Constance will ask me to stand for her at her ordination and I don’t think it is right.” Ordination of women as priests in the Episcopal Church was a very controversial issue. In Reverend Kempsell’s former diocese in Texas, a prospective female Episcopal priest needed police protection
for her ordination. The Reverend Constance Coles believes that it was Ruth Kempsell who convinced her husband to change his mind.
“I was wrong,” George Kempsell told Carol Johnson regarding his opposition to his niece being ordained. When he told a fellow Episcopal minister at a conference in Colorado that he was going to New York to stand with his niece at her ordination, the minister fainted.The Reverend Coles recalls that George Kempsell was thin and frail when he attended her ceremony in New York. It was the last time she would see him. He died on August 31, 1980. His wife Ruth died six weeks later. The Reverend Coles would be the first female to perform a funeral service (for Ruth) with Bishop Frye.
The Reverend George French Kempsell Jr.’s memorial service took place at the Episcopal Cathedral in Denver. His nephew Howard French Kempsell had recently been ordained and traveled to Denver to take part in the service. As he and Bishop Frye prepared for the service, the Bishop confided that Reverend Kempsell had been difficult, always calling him because this group or that group needed the church’s help. As the two clergymen walked into the memorial hall, The Bishop found reason to pause and give Howard a look of acknowledgment. The cathedral hall was filled beyond capacity. In fact it was so full that people were standing in the aisles. The multitude of mourners was a fitting testament to the Reverend Kempsell’s impact on the community he had served and to his Costly Grace; which he had achieved by challenging his parishioners, his community and himself to treat everyone equally, regardless of race, creed, color or gender.
6 responses to “Costly Grace”
Really enjoyed this piece on a still little known part of local westchester history.
I was there my name was Leslie Thornhill I was in the choir loft. The reason the Scarsdale country club rejected the boy as an escort to the coming out ball was because his grandmother was Jewish I remember this as if it were yesterday. Because I was there and had grown up in that church much of what the author to this article says is not correct. The girl had submitted two names to the Scarsdale country club for her escorts to the ball each girl was required to have two escorts. One of them had a Jewish grandmother and that was the reason she went to the priest to tell him that the Scarsdale country club said he could not be her escort. This priest at great risk and sacrifice to himself his wife and his children took a stand for righteousness. Eventually the Scarsdale country club gave in. Although my family was not a member I have remembered this my whole life and at 71 I still take a stand for love and justice.
Would love to hear your recollection of life at The Episcopal Chuch of St.James the Less. Please email me at Thomasq260@gmail.com or call me at 617-875-6004. Thanks for reading!
Thanks so much, Tom, for giving me an hour and a half to ramble on about SHS, St James the Less, the Committee of 10, the Kernan family, and so much more. Those first 18 years of my life were important, and it’s fun to go back and visit now and then. Stay well. Cheerio, Dan Rankin ’55
Hope you will read my latest article about Red Barber here at Thomas-Quirk.com The Secret History of Scarsdale.
Thank you, Leslie.
For the record, I invited my best friend, Michael Robinson whose father was Jewish, and other Jewish friends to the Golf Club pool. I knew it was against the rules.
My wedding reception was at the SGC with quite a few Jewish people in attendance. The accordion player turned white when asked to play the Hora. He played it and we all danced it.
That said, many of us in Scarsdale were little better than the folks of Bronxville who would not sell any real estate to Jews.
It is alarming to see the current rise in antisemitism in our nation and elsewhere. It is certainly unChristian. Jesus was a Jew who advocated love for all.