The Rev. Rachel C. Kessler ’04, associate priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto, has been appointed chaplain at Kenyon and priest-in-charge of Harcourt Parish Episcopal Church in Gambier.
President Sean Decatur and the Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth Jr., Episcopal bishop of Ohio and a member of the Kenyon College Board of Trustees, announced the selection of Kessler for the new joint position after an international search. She starts Nov. 1.
“Reverend Kessler is a great fit for Kenyon and this position,” Decatur said. “She brings warmth, humor and a deep commitment to interfaith work.” Kessler will be based in the new Office of Spiritual and Religious Life, which Decatur established within the Division of Student Affairs during the summer.
Kessler said she will be available to support all students, regardless of religious identity, as they navigate the challenges of college life. “A close-knit, scholarly environment like Kenyon provides such unique opportunities to engage in serious dialogue, which should challenge our own individual beliefs and presuppositions,” she said. “I know that my own faith was shaped by so many late-night dorm room debates with friends from a wide range of spiritual perspectives.”
Hollingsworth said the collaborative effort to hire Kessler reflects the common commitment to meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of students, employees and townspeople. “It will further broaden the important work of the newly established Office of Spiritual and Religious Life, helping all in the College community, regardless of their religious tradition, to grow in body, mind and spirit.”
In the new office, Kessler will collaborate with Marc Bragin, director of spiritual and religious life and Jewish chaplain. Bragin, who served on the search committee, said he is excited to work with Kessler. “She has the unique ability to challenge our assumptions and allow us to ask ourselves inspiring questions about why we do what we do, what we can do better and how best to build a meaningful and robust spiritual community at Kenyon.”
Perry Lentz, professor emeritus of English and a member of the Harcourt vestry (administrative council), was a member of the search committee who visited Kessler in her Toronto parish. “Rachel is at the outset of her career, yet she is already seasoned. She is intellectually gifted and accomplished, yet she is thoughtfully wise, and she is warm, open, engaged and engaging,” he said.
Kessler graduated from the College summa cum laude with a double major in English and philosophy. “Kenyon is a special place that influenced so much of how I think about the world – how I enjoy asking difficult questions and tend to be wary of easy answers,” she said.
Raised in a Baptist household, Kessler attended Harcourt Parish during college, often joined in the pews by her future husband, Leeman Tarpley Kessler ’04. The congregation existed since Kenyon founder Philander Chase, an Episcopal bishop, moved the College to Gambier. The congregation meets in the Church of the Holy Spirit on campus.
Kessler received a master’s and a doctorate from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. While writing her dissertation, she realized that she wanted to work in ordained ministry instead of pursuing a career as a professor. The day after she submitted her doctoral thesis on Old English literature, she began a master’s program in divinity.
A priest in the Anglican Church of Canada, Kessler collaborates with other clergy in a large, urban parish, where she oversees outreach, education and communication. She is an active member of local interfaith and ecumenical organizations and, in 2013, co-founded the Scholar-Priest Initiative, which supports Anglican clergy in the United States and Canada who are committed to the dual vocations of scholarship and parish work.
Meredith Harper Bonham ’92, vice president for student affairs and a search committee member, said the group was fortunate to find a person committed to working with students in all stages of spiritual development. “Given her genuine approachability and technological savviness, I can't wait to observe all of the creative ways in which she will connect with students.”
Maggie Griffin ’17, who met Kessler during her visit to campus, said she too appreciated Kessler’s desire to reach out to students of all faiths. “I think that she is someone who is firmly rooted within her own tradition and yet who respects other traditions in more than just a shallow way.”
Associate Professor of Classics Adam Serfass, search committee chairman, said the panel sought four qualities in the new priest-chaplain: a person of spiritual conviction who is a bridge-builder, a committed pastor and a gifted public speaker. “Rachel not only possesses each of these qualities, but also has a long record of academic excellence and knows first-hand about religious life at Harcourt and Kenyon.”
Kessler and her husband are the parents of Amanda, 2, and a dog named Bilbo. “When I graduated, a small part of me hoped that I would find my way back to the Hill one day, although I never would have imagined it would be in a clerical, rather than academic, capacity,” she said.