June 9, 2006

Indy native named to lead schools in
Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese

By Ann Carey
Today’s Catholic

When Holy Cross Father Steve Kempinger was a sophomore geology major at the University of Notre Dame, he volunteered to tutor children through a neighborhood study program at Saint Mary’s College.

That experience hooked him on a career in education that now has taken him to the top education job in the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese—superintendent of schools.

Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John M. D’Arcy has appointed Father Kempinger to the position, effective on July 1. He will be the first Holy Cross priest to serve the diocese as superintendent of schools, although diocesan priests have served in that role previously.

He will replace outgoing superintendent Michelle Hitte, who is retiring after 25 years with the diocese—first as a teacher, then principal and then superintendent. Father Kempinger has been the associate superintendent for the past two years, and credits Hitte with handing over a school system that is in excellent condition.

“We always look for improvement,” Father Kempinger said, “but I think we have a very sound school system, and I really appreciate the good shape it’s in.”

Father Kempinger has followed a similar career path in education as Hitte. While studying geology at Notre Dame, he also took education courses at Saint Mary’s College, and when he graduated from Notre Dame he had earned certification as a high school science teacher.

He taught science for one year at a public high school in his hometown of Indianapolis, where he had grown up in St. Barnabas Parish. Then he answered a call to the priesthood.

Holy Cross Father Andre Léveillé had noticed the young man’s dedication during his senior year of college and asked him if he had ever considered becoming a priest.

That question planted a seed that flourished, Father Kempinger told Today’s Catholic, the newspaper of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, and after considering the diocesan priesthood he chose the Congregation of Holy Cross.

“I fell in love with the philosophy and strength of the Holy Cross founder, [Venerable Basil Anthony] Moreau, and the emphasis on education, especially ‘educating the mind and the heart’ that he preached, and it just seemed a good match,” he explained.

After his novitiate year, Father Kempinger asked to be assigned to a high school to get a sense of what it would be like to live and work in community. At Notre Dame High School in Niles, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, he taught religion and was director of student activities for the 780 male students. During his two years there, he earned a master’s degree in educational administration from Loyola University in Chicago. He presently is pursing a doctorate in education through part-time class work at Indiana University.

After his ordination, Father Kempinger was assigned as associate pastor of Christ the King Parish in South Bend, Ind. When the parish school lost its principal during his second year there, Father Kempinger was pressed into service, and what was to have been a temporary position as principal turned into four years in the job.

“I just loved it,” Father Kempinger told Today’s Catholic. “For me, it was the best of both worlds because I was in education, and I was doing parish duties, too.”

Two years ago, Father Kempinger became associate superintendent of schools for the diocese, with his office in Mishawaka, Ind. In that position, Father Kempinger visited the South Bend- and Mishawaka-area Catholic schools frequently, and enjoyed being back in a school setting and being present to the students and staff.

One of his personal goals in the new job is to visit as many diocesan schools as he can, and spend time with the staff and students in those other schools, too. He will maintain his primary residence at Moreau Seminary on the Notre Dame campus, but will have sleeping quarters at a rectory in Fort Wayne, Ind., so that he can split his time each week between both ends of the diocese.

“I’m looking at this as hopefully a real benefit of joining the two ends of the diocese,” he said.

Something else high on his priority list is what he calls a “vision” rather than a goal: “I wish that we could provide a Catholic education to all those parents who want their child to go to Catholic school,” he said. “That’s the vision. The goals are: How do we do that?”

While wrestling with that important question, Father Kempinger also will focus on some other goals, like continuing to provide outstanding professional development opportunities for teachers and working to identify teachers who have the spiritual, educational and managerial qualities and skills to be future principals, and then to prepare those people as future school leaders.

“We have outstanding leadership right now, but as the years go along we need to keep that up,” Father Kempinger said.

In fact, the priest credits the current diocesan school principals with providing the support and encouragement he needed to accept the job.

“If I didn’t have that [support], I don’t know if I could do this,” he said. “It means so much to me, and I look forward to working with them. They are my family when it comes to the schools.”

Father Kempinger sees his new role primarily as being a good listener and a good communication link between Bishop D’Arcy and the principals, council of teachers and diocesan school board.

“I have to listen and learn in order to get the information to make good decisions,” Father Kempinger said.

“One of the things my Mom and Dad [SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral parishioners Gilbert and Kathleen Kempinger of Indianapolis] always taught me was that whatever I did in life, I needed to make a difference,” he continued. “That’s how I got involved in education here at Notre Dame—I wanted to make a difference in some kid’s life who was struggling with academics. Everything since then has kind of revolved around that, and I hope I can make a difference in this position.”

(Ann Carey is a freelance writer for Today’s Catholic.) †



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