In honor of back to school season, I drove up to Kent, CT and met with the Rev. Kate Kelderman. Kate, or Mama K, as she is known on campus, is the school chaplain, Dean of St. Joseph’s chapel, a chemistry teacher, and varsity field hockey coach at Kent School. Kate gave me a tour of the campus and later over coffee we had a great conversation about the history of Kent School, her role as the chaplain, and her journey to becoming a chaplain.
Kent School was founded in 1906 by the Rev. Frederick Herbert Sill, an Episcopal brother from Holy Cross Monastery in New York. “Sill didn’t believe in endowments,” Kate said, “he started the school for the middle-class kid, believing that every kid should find a school that fits them.” This schooling model led to two things: Kent being the first secondary school to charge tuition on a sliding scale and, consequentially, a diverse student body: economically, geographically, and religiously.
Both still in effect today.
Along with the financial beliefs, Sill believed in the educational value of the simplicity of life, directness of purpose, and self-reliance– which are now the three cornerstone values at Kent. One way that all 587 students participate in these values is through the works program. “All students have a job on campus,” Kate said, “including working with me in the chapel, on the ‘God Squad’.”
Kent School strongly holds to their Episcopal identity, especially through community service, teaching religion courses, and required chapel services.
St. Joseph’s chapel is at the center of campus and of campus life. “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we have morning prayer at 9:30 am, and evening prayer, both are required,” Kate said. The bell at the chapel is rung 19 times before each service in honor of the first 19 students to attend Kent School in 1906. There is also required Sunday service. “Bishop Laura Ahrens jokes that St. Joseph’s chapel is the largest congregation in the diocese,” Kate said. “Not all the students fit in the nave at once.” The school makes travel arrangements for all the non-Christian students to attend their respective worship services throughout the week.
I asked Kate if she believed that the chapel and required weekly services has had an effect on the students. “I think so,” she said. “When students come back for reunions, they miss the grounding of chapel. It is hard to articulate when they are students, but it is so much a part of their life here. Especially in dark times, as well as happy times like weddings and baptisms.”
In keeping with Episcopal tradition of being a place of welcome, Kent and St. Joseph’s chapel is a safe place for intellectual and spiritual curiosity of the divine. “Pluralistic identity is a huge gift to this school,” Kate said, “it makes us richer and more able to understand love and the importance of weaving faith and life.”
The practice of weaving faith and life translates into Kate’s classroom as well. Before seeking ordination, Kate was a public high school science teacher. Kate then gave up teaching to attend Virginia Theological Seminary. Kate did not go into seminary thinking she would be a chaplain, but a small parish priest. By graduation, Kate had decided she wanted to become a chaplain. However, life and God took her to Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Florida to serve as a parish priest. 10 years later, when the position at Kent opened up, Kate knew it was her time to serve as a chaplain.
“I am a better chaplain because of serving as a parish priest,” she said. “Everything you do prepares you for what is next. I am uniquely prepared for the position here because of the life I had before.”
Her role as a chaplain is not confined to the chapel and her role as a teacher is not confined to the lab. “The classroom is a gateway to a deeper relationship with students,” Kate said, along with her time serving as an advisor to 8 students. “I wear my collar every day in the classroom, as a physical symbol that science and religion are not separate, and when students ask about it – that is my favorite.”
Kate is entering her 6thschool year at Kent and she is simultaneously finishing up her Doctor of Ministry from Virginia Theological Seminary. “This is the hardest job I have ever had,” Kate said about being a boarding school chaplain. “It is like a marathon, 7 days a week, and I love it more than I could ever imagine.”