One of South Carolina’s first deacons turns 100

By Bill Perry/Special to The Catholic Miscellany

MOUNT PLEASANT — Joseph Kemper, one of the Diocese of Charleston’s first permanent deacons, reached another landmark on May 29. He turned 100 years old.
Family members and friends traveled to Sandpiper Village Senior Living Community to celebrate with him.
Deacon Kemper was ordained with two other men in August 1971, by Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler as the first permanent deacons in the state of South Carolina.
After Pope Paul VI issued  the Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem in 1967, the U.S. bishops received permission to ordain permanent deacons in 1968. The first group of ordinations took place in May 1971.
Deacon Kemper retired from the diaconate in 1999, but remained active in his ministry for several more years, conducting communion services, visiting the poor and writing.
Today, his small room at Sandpiper Village is a testament to the humble way he has lived in service to God. The only picture hanging in his room is a portrait of St. Peter. Next to that hangs a crucifix and a clock just below.
“The clock represents the world, with Christ ruling over it,” Deacon Kemper told The Miscellany in an interview.
He has worked hard and helped others almost  all of his life, according to his family.
“My father started working on the farm at age 8 and was expected to be responsible for his mother, brothers and sisters,” said Claire Kemper Johnson, his daughter from Charlottesville, Va. “I can’t help wishing he had more of a real childhood. Without his intervention, I know his siblings would not have the success stories they did. He has given, given, given.”
Deacon Kemper was a woodworker and cabinet-maker by trade who  owned his own business in New Jersey for many years.
After spending time in Florida with his wife Eleanor, who was dying of cancer, he returned to New Jersey to do missionary work with the church. He moved to South Carolina for his ministry of service in 1966.
“I arrived in Charleston, drove to Broad Street, parked my van in the Cathedral school yard and met with Msgr. Bernardin and then the bishop,” he said.
For the next five years, Deacon Kemper served throughout the state, working in construction and driving the bishop around the country. In 1967, Bishop Unterkoefler was the only American bishop summoned to Rome to advise Pope Paul VI on the need for a permanent diaconate.
“The bishop related to the Holy Father my work in South Carolina as an example of why permanent deacons were needed in the church,” Deacon Kemper said.
Later that year, the pope established the order of the permanent diaconate and Deacon Kemper began intensively training and preparing for ordination.
Msgr. John Simonin, retired pastor of St. Mary Church in Charleston, fondly remembered his 27 year association with “Deacon Joe.”
“We started at St. Patrick’s, and he went with me to Nativity, St. Joseph’s and finally St. Mary’s,” Msgr. Simonin said.
Utilizing talents he learned as a young man, Deacon Kemper did much of the construction and repair work around the parishes in which he served.  He built portable confessionals, rebuilt rectory porches, rewired electrical circuitry or whatever needed to be done.
“Msgr. Simonin and I did 27 building projects together,” he said. “He was a wonderful man to work with.”
Michael Robinson, a longtime St. Mary parishioner and finance council chair, said Msgr. Simonin and Deacon Kemper were quite a team for 17 years.
“They left our parish in very sound financial and structural condition,” he said.
One side of the man that most people never saw was his willingness to help the poor and those in distress. Regina Alberti, former St. Mary housekeeper, recalled a lady in the community with a severe kidney illness which required numerous medications she could not afford.
“Deacon Kemper befriended her and paid for the medicines out of his own pocket for years, and no one ever knew,” she said.
Alberti said people would knock on the front door of the rectory and the deacon would help them out.
“Under a sometimes gruff, temperamental exterior was a heart of pure gold,” she said.
Now Deacon Kemper spends his days in prayer, reading the Bible, and talking with his many visitors at Sandpiper. On his 99th birthday, his family surprised him by driving him to St. Mary for Sunday Mass followed by a reception.
“He talked about that day for months, and how many old friends he met that were mere children when he first knew them,” his daughter said. “It was a wonderful day.”