By PAUL A. BARRA
Jeffrey A. Kendall went from fallen-away Methodist to Catholic and from construction project manager to priest, all inside of 10 years. Along the way, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Wake Forest, one in civil engineering from North Carolina A&T and two master’s degrees from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
At seminary commencement exercises this spring in Philadelphia, he was the class valedictorian.
Despite a long and difficult faith journey and his abundance of formal education, Deacon Kendall is ready for the real world of a diocesan priest.
“I love academics and love to read and think about all sorts of things but there is something a little sterile about that life,” he said. “Something not present in books is present in people. A parish completes a priest.”
Kendall described his theology as sacramental, noting that a priest is himself a sacrament, but does not want to separate out the pastoral aspects of the ordained ministry. He loves liturgical music all genres and looks forward to a pastoral assignment following his July 12 ordination. He has served the last two summers at the Church of the Nativity on James Island.
He is at peace now with his vocation, but his discernment process was anything but peaceful. His father called his decision to become a Catholic priest “a disaster.” A cousin who owned a construction company offered Kendall a prime job when he finished engineering school; when he told him he was entering the seminary, the cousin replied: “There are worse things you could be than a priest. You could become a pimp.”
William and Joyce Kendall are now reconciled to their son’s faith and to his priestly vocation, he said. The cousin experienced his own kind of spiritual comeuppance.
“The joke’s on him,” Deacon Kendall said. “He ended up falling in love with a Catholic woman and has converted. He is now a church lector and eucharistic minister.”
Kendall credits the influence of a friend, Hunter Halder, and the pastor of St. Benedict’s Church near his hometown of Morganton, N.C., for his conversion to Catholicism. At the time, he was nominally still a Methodist but found UMC churches to be uninspiring. He met Father Conrad Kimbrough through Halder and went to invite him to lunch one Saturday when he was going through what he called a difficult time in his life. He was tired of school and unsure of the future. He was working in construction, managing projects that ranged into the $250,000 category. He entered St. Benedict and found himself in the middle of a Mass.
“The room was unlike any other I’ve ever been in. It felt cold and barren outside; inside it was terrifying, but it was real. It was an experience crossing the threshold.”
He had argued since his confirmation at age 13 for the concept of the real presence in the Eucharist, not knowing at the time that he was espousing a Catholic doctrine. He started going to daily Mass and was received into the Church by Father Kimbrough in November 1990. Soon after he entered the seminary.
He is likewise indebted to Father Robert Carroll, who was his spiritual advisor for four years at St. Charles.