Christ Church Looks Back: The Departure of Fr. Kippenbrock

Christ Church Looks Back: The Departure of Fr. Kippenbrock
By Joseph A. Tomberlin
Posted March 5, 2014

Joseph Tomberlin

Michael Joseph Kippenbrock, last Vicar and first Rector of Christ Church, was a Texan, born in Austin on September 29, 1903. On June 7, 1928, he married Annabel Mae Coffman, and by 1930, the couple was living in Fairbanks, Alaska, where Fr. Kippenbrock was the Vicar of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. Their first child, David Michael Kippenbrock, was born in Fairbanks on December 27, 1931. The second child, Anne Virginia Kippenbrock, also was born in Fairbanks on February 3, 1935, and her mother died the same day. Kippenbrock married his second wife, Virginia Lee, on April 21, 1937. In 1942, he entered the United States Army, presumably as a chaplain, for the duration of World II. After the war, by 1949, he was serving as Rector of St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church in Aiken, South Carolina.

Following the 1953 departure of Fr. Clifton H. White, Bishop Middleton S. Barnwell recommended that Christ Church call Fr. Kippenbrock from Aiken as the new Vicar. Kippenbrock remained at Christ Church from May 1, 1953, to September 30, 1963, when he left to become Vicar of All Saints Episcopal Church in Enterprise, Florida. Among the notable developments of his tenure, the first was Christ Church’s achieving parish status on May 11, 1954, whereupon the Vestry issued a formal call to Kippenbrock to become the new parish’s first Rector. Also, at about the same time, the Vestry borrowed $9,000.00 from the American Church Building Fund Commission to construct a “Sunday School Annex” attached to the eastern end of the Parish Hall, and that project came to completion in 1954. Named Barnwell Hall by the Vestry in December 1960, the Annex provided six Sunday School rooms that were in use until the major alterations of 1980-1981. Then, the “new kitchen” took up the space that had been Barnwell Hall, and more than thirty years later is still in that location. Based upon the persistent need for additional Sunday School space, Christ Church in December 1958 purchased the house located at 103 East College Street. Originally, that building, named Stuart Hall in 1960, contained both Sunday School rooms and a kindergarten. The final concrete accomplishment of Fr. Kippenbrock’s ten years in the parish was the renovation of the church itself in 1963 that gave the building the appearance that it had until the major modifications of 1980-1981.

While Fr. Kippenbrock and the Vestry together accomplished much, they occasionally were at odds. One such episode occurred in 1957 and was referred to in Vestry minutes as the “Clapp incident.” Donald Brand Clapp, a native of Malden, Massachusetts, was born on December 12, 1932. His name first came up at the Vestry meeting of August 5, 1957, when, according to the Minutes, “Rev. Kippenbrock advised that Donald Clapp desires approval of this Parish as a Postulant for [holy] orders. Does this Vestry feel that it knows Clapp well enough to recommend him? Rev. Kippenbrock feels that the boy [he was twenty-four years old] should be helped and will discuss the matter with the Bishop [Albert Rhett Stuart].” At the next Vestry session on September 9, 1957, Kippenbrock reported that “he had spoken to . . .Bishop [Stuart] about the recommendation of Donald Clapp as a postulant, and that transfer of Clapp to this Church should be arranged, with his [the Bishop’s] subsequent approval of Clapp’s application in view.” However, in the Vestry Minutes of October 15, 1958, the following terse statement appeared: “The Clapp incident was discussed—and is now closed.” Apparently, the Vestry did not agree to recommend Clapp, as Fr. Kippenbrock had desired, but that point was never actually recorded in the minutes.

Indeed, Vestry Minutes convey an impression that the members were much less enthusiastic about endorsing Donald Clapp for postulancy than Fr. Kippenbrock was, hence the use of the slightly disparaging term “the Clapp incident.” The nature of his connection with Clapp is impossible to determine fifty-seven years later, but a single link does appear in the records of Christ Church and is found in the list of marriages between July 19, 1953, and August 6, 1977, in the second Parish Register. Fr. Kippenbrock, at 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 13, 1956, presided at the wedding of Olivia Juanita Batten and Donald Brand Clapp at the Methodist Church of Green Cove Springs, Florida. Then, on November 1, 1956, Olivia Batten Clapp transferred her membership from St. James Episcopal Church, Quitman, to Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta. Parish Register II, however, does not show that Donald Clapp ever transferred his membership to Christ Church. The only other available piece of information about Clapp is that he died at the age of fifty-eight in 1991 in Decatur, Illinois.

The second episode, which occurred in 1959, speaks clearly of tension between the Vestry and the Rector. The Minutes of Vestry’s meeting of July 10, 1959, summarize two different developments indicative of unrest in the Vestry. First, Noah Fry, who had held various lay positions at Christ Church, announced that he was resigning from the Vestry and from the office of Treasurer. He declared that he was doing so because Vestry often held meetings without having a quorum, the Senior Warden seldom attended Vestry meetings, and there was no written record of the Vestry’s by-laws. In the same session, according to the Minutes, “Rector clarified duties of Rector and Vestry.” That Fr. Kippenbrock believed such a clarification was necessary at all implied the existence of substantial conflict.

In a called meeting ten days later, along with accepting Mr. Fry’s resignation, Vestry heard from Secretary George Twiggs the entire text of a written statement, in which he pointed out that in the Articles of Association adopted on April 11, 1954, in preparation for applying for parish status, members of Christ Church pledged to adhere to “the doctrine, discipline and worship, and the Canons and Constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and the Constitution and Canons of the same Church in the diocese of Georgia.” Moreover, he said, “We as Vestrymen made the same statement when we were sworn in.”

Twiggs then declared, “These are the laws that govern us.” First, “The Canons say that the Rector, when present, shall preside at Vestry meetings.” Second, “The control of the worship and the spiritual jurisdiction of the Parish are vested in the Rector.” Third, “For the purpose of his office and for the full and free discharge of all functions and duties pertaining thereto, the Rector shall, at all times, be entitled to the use and control of the Church and Parish buildings with the appurtenances and furniture thereof.” Fourth, “When the Priest is instituted [according to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, page 569] the Bishop says to him, ‘[And as] a canonically instituted Priest into the office of Rector of __________ Parish (or Church) you are faithfully to feed that portion of the flock of Christ which is now entrusted to you; not a man-pleaser but as continually bearing in mind that you are accountable to us here, and to the Chief Bishop and Sovereign Judge of all, hereafter.’”

Having expounded the “law” as he believed it applied to the situation at Christ Church, Twiggs moved that “we rededicate ourselves to our tasks by taking the vow found in I Am a Vestryman [a book authored by Theodore R. Ludlow, Episcopal priest and Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, 1936-1953] and giving Father Kippenbrock a vote of confidence.” A.M. “Hambone” Larson seconded the Twiggs motion, and without any discussion whatever the motion received unanimous approval. Thereupon, the Vestry stood, and Fr. Kippenbrock administered the oath from I Am a Vestryman, which asked, “Will you earnestly give yourself to this office by your faithful attendance at the services of the Church; by your ready and willing acceptance of the duties of your office; by your loyal support of and co-operation with the Rector of the Parish in the discharge of his canonical duties; by your conscientious sacrifice of time, strength, and substance in the discharge of your duties; by doing all in your power to promote the welfare of this Parish and of the whole Church of which this Parish is a part?” The prescribed response was “I will earnestly endeavor to do so, the Lord being my helper.”

In addition to the foregoing, when the Vestry in April 1953 established the terms under which Kippenbrock would come to Christ Church as Vicar, a major element in the agreement was to provide a new house for the Vicar’s family. Despite extended discussion of selling the original “Rectory” at 115 West North Street and buying a new house to replace it, the issue was tabled month after month in Vestry meetings. Consequently, the Kippenbrock family moved into the existing “Rectory,” which had been refurbished, and remained there from May 1, 1953, until their departure on October 1, 1963. Vestry records show that, regardless of the repairs and renovations made before the Kippenbrocks arrived, the condition of 115 West North continued to be a vexed issue. For example, in a report to Vestry on January 3, 1962, on Christ Church’s physical plant, Junior Warden James Perryman stated that “all physical property of the Church was in reasonably good repair with the exception of the Rectory.” In a meeting on May 2, 1962, “The Rector called to the Vestry’s attention that the Rectory was in dire need for the present range and refrigerator to be replaced with more satisfactory equipment.” The Rector’s statement made so slight an impression that Vestrymen did not bother to respond at all.

None of the foregoing discussion specifically clarifies why Michael Kippenbrock made the decision to depart Christ Church for a position that, even at first glance, hardly qualifies as a step up. However, it does provide background information that perhaps accounts for his having concluded that the time had come for him to make a move. He appears to have surprised Vestry by submitting his resignation as “Rector of Christ Church, Valdosta, effective 30 September 1963.” He confirmed that he had “accepted a call from the Bishop of the Diocese of South Florida to become Vicar of All Saints Church, Enterprise, Florida, on 1 October 1963.” [All Saints was a very small mission church and Enterprise a small unincorporated community on the south end of Lake Monroe in Volusia County, Florida.] He noted that he had “informed Bishop Stuart of this action, and I trust you will keep in touch with him through your Senior Warden as you proceed to the task of finding and calling a new Rector.” Then, he wrote, “It is never . . . easy . . . to sever the tie which binds a priest to his people. It has been my privilege . . . to be here for more than ten years . . . [as the last Vicar], and then as your first Rector. My interest in this Parish and community and my concern for your spiritual welfare will always be continuing and most real, and I shall pray always for your advance in Christian knowledge and endeavor.”

James Perryman, the Senior Warden, had the Secretary read Fr. Kippenbrock’s letter to the Vestry in a called meeting on July 29, 1963. After the reading, Marion Tucker moved that Vestry “accept with regret the resignation of our Rector.” With a Blake Ellis second, the motion was approved, and the letter afterward was attached “to the minutes of this meeting as a permanent record.” Over fifty years later, the letter continues to be so attached. The Vestry Minutes of October 2, 1963, record that Vestry, on behalf of the people of Christ Church “presented Mr. Kippenbrock with a wrist watch as a ‘going away’ present on Monday, September 16, 1963.” Christ Church’s Vestry records make no further mention of Fr. Kippenbrock. It is perhaps ironic, in view of Vestry’s failure to provide the Kippenbrock family with a new house, that the same minutes that reported the wrist watch gift to Fr. Kippenbrock also contained the following passage: “Mr. [Bill] Eager [Jr.] moved we put the Rectory, located on West North Street, for sale for $9,500.00 net to the Church, the price not to include a stove refrigerator and air conditioning units located in the building. The motion was seconded by Mr. [John] Holland and carried.”

Next time, an account of Christ Church’s search for a new Rector.