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The Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist    200 Main St., Thomaston, Maine  04861

stjohnsinthomaston@gmail.com    (207) 354-8734       Sunday Services are at 8 am and 10 am


The Rev. and Mrs.

William and Audrey

Kennison

The Kennison Era

    by Dr. Anthony Antolini

Part III of a Series

When we left off in December, Fr. Charles O. Brown was no longer vicar at St. John’s. He had fully retired and continued to attend services but no longer as the officiating priest. It was now the beginning of the William B. Kennison era. Some of the biographical information included here is from Fr. Bill’s obituary provided by Burpee, Carpenter & Hutchins Funeral Home.

Bill was born Feb. 2, 1927 in Augusta, the second son of Ralph Gregory Kennison and Arline Bartley Kennison. He grew up in Augusta, attending Lincoln School and graduating from Cony High School in 1945. He served as a choirboy and acolyte at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, and was active in Boy Scout Troup #167, obtaining the rank of Eagle Scout at the age of 15. His musical proclivities led to the study of clarinet at age 12, and at age 14 he was playing both clarinet and saxophone in various dance bands, which he continued to do throughout his high school and college years.

In 1945 Bill enlisted in the US Navy and served for one year. Because of his short military service he was fond of calling himself a veteran of World War II “by default.”

In the fall of 1946 he entered the University of Maine, and graduated in the Class of 1951 with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. A member of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity, he was President of his house during his senior year of college.

His first engineering job was with Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he also served as a Boy Scout scoutmaster. When the great steel strike began in 1952 he began working as an Engineering Trainee at Bath Iron Works. In Bath, he again served as Scoutmaster and as interim Choir Director at Grace Episcopal Church. He also joined the Lincoln County Orchestra as a clarinetist.

He left BIW in 1955 to work for General Electric at the Knolis Atomic Power Lab in Schenectady, New York, in the design of nuclear power plants for naval submarines.  Here his growing spiritual vocation to serve God rather than produce machines of warfare caused him to seek Holy Orders as a Priest of the Episcopal Church.

In 1956 he married Audrey Hill of Bath, Maine. Their first child, Mary, was born in 1957. The new family of three moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where Bill began his years of study at Berkeley Divinity School. Their second child, Jane, was born in 1958. After graduation and ordination in 1960, Bill was assigned by the Bishop of Albany to serve in Trinity Church, Sharon Springs, The Church of the Good Shepard in Canajoharie, and Holy Cross Church in Fort Plain, New York.  Their third child, Nancy, was born in 1962.

In 1963 he was called to serve as Rector of St. Luke’s Church in Catskill, New York. In this racially mixed town and parish the Kennison family soon found themselves involved with the civil rights efforts of the time, including the NAACP, schools, public witness activities and interracial discussion groups in their home.  In addition, growing ferment in the Church over Liturgical Renewal and dissatisfaction in society over an increasingly unpopular war led to a desire for a ministry to the younger generation.

In 1968 Bill left St. Luke’s to become Chaplain and teacher of physics and mathematics at Berwick Academy in South Berwick, Maine, where he remained for two years.  In 1970 he accepted a position as a full-time instructor in physics and mathematics at Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute. This allowed him to remain connected to young people during an important time in society while maintaining his ministry as a Sunday supply priest at Episcopal churches throughout the Diocese of Maine.  These were also agricultural years for the family as they settled into a more self-sufficient life style in an old historic farmhouse in North Yarmouth, with an organic garden, a small flock of sheep, a pair of dairy goats, chickens and rabbits.  From 1974 to 1976 he also served as Vicar of St. Stephen the Martyr Episcopal Church in Waterboro.

 During this time his musical activities increased and he became the first chair clarinetist with the Community Orchestra of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and formed a family recorder quartet with his three daughters. This became the Recorder Choir of the newly established Mission Church of St. Bartholomew in Yarmouth, to provide the mission’s musical accompaniment to weekly services since there was no organ.

After eight years as a “teaching priest”, he accepted the call to return to full-time parish ministry in 1976 as the Vicar of St. John’s.  He soon became involved in ecumenical affairs, helping to form the Thomaston Interchurch Fellowship, and was active in the new Pen Bay Hospital chaplaincy and the Coastal Clergy Study Group.  He was an early member of the Prison Yoke Fellows Group, which led to further activity in the Maine Council of Churches Prison Ministry Committee, Criminal Justice Committee and Executive Committee. He was also one of the co-founders of the local chapter of Mid-Coast Habitat for Humanity. After retirement he served on the Board of the Mid-Coast Mental Health Center, and increased his sailing, hiking and musical activities.  As an accomplished bassoonist, he was a charter member of the Mid-Coast Symphony Orchestra, an ad hoc wind trio, the Mid-Coast Woodwind Quintet, the Windswept Quintet, and an orchestra member for many local theater productions.

His lifelong love of hiking, gardening, sailing and music enriched his life tremendously, in hiking the Maine portion of the Appalachian Trail, including five ascents of Mount Katahdin and four crossings of the Katahdin knife edge, he found peace in a basic philosophy of life that he summed up in these three admonitions, which he stated for all to hear at the reception following his last service at St. John’s:

Live close to the earth.

Stay in touch with the Source.

Help each other out.

Bill Kennison was a no-nonsense guy. He told you what he thought and didn’t mince words. But he balanced that honesty with a kindness and warmth that made him loveable. An example of this from my own experience with him might be of interest.  When Bill discovered that I owned a set of recorders and had a bass instrument I was invited to go to the Kennisons’ home (then on Main Street) to play in the family ensemble. I soon realized that my sight reading skills were weak compared to the three Kennison girls and Father Bill, who ruled the ensemble with an iron hand. When I’d make a mistake he wouldn’t hesitate to say something like, “Those are triplets and you’re playing them as if they were dotted rhythms.” It took a while to get used to this sort of critique but it made me a better sight reader on the recorder.

When I played the organ he could also be a friendly critic. One Sunday after Bill retired he was in the congregation and a visiting priest changed one of the hymns at the last minute. I had to sight read it. Being under pressure I didn’t notice the key signature and played it in the major tonality when it was supposed to be in minor. Bill came up afterwards with his familiar grin and said, “Are you trying to give us an ear training test?” I asked what this meant. He said, “Well in MY hymnal that was in the minor but I guess in the organist’s hymnal it’s in the major!”

In 1987 the then version of the Rachmaninoff Choir was invited to tour the USSR with performances of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It was this tour that became the documentary television program “Rediscovering Rachmaninoff” and won a Silver Apple Award for best music documentary in 1990. Bill and Audrey decided they would go on the tour even though the majority of the singers were from California, where I was teaching at the time. Audrey was not a singer but a willing traveler to any place interesting. So Bill started studying Russian with a local teacher and learned the bass part of the 20-movement Liturgy and became a member of a choir whose constituency he had never met before. (Architect Chris Glass and his wife, Deacon Rosalee Glass were also in the ensemble.)  Russia didn’t phase him a bit even though we were there in January. Those who are interested in seeing this adventure can find it on the documentary which is easily available.

After raising their children the Kennisons grew tired of living on Main Street in Thomaston with its constant traffic noise. So they bought a beautiful old house on Oyster River Road in Warren. This also afforded Bill and Audrey a chance to return to serious gardening, raising their own vegetables and flowers. Years later, that house became too big for them so they downsized and moved to a smaller place in Thomaston with a lovely view of the St. George River. It was in this house that Bill died, surrounded by his family and a windowsill filled with icons he and Audrey had bought on that trip to Russia.

            My favorite recollection of this fine man comes from the time that I decided to leave my position at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California, and return to Maine to join the faculty of the Bowdoin College Music Department and live year-round in the Cushing house I had inhabited each summer since I was born.

            Since I was now available to be organist at St. John’s twelve months of the year (instead of just in the summer) I accepted Bill’s offer to succeed the very gifted previous organist, Jerry Koontz, who was moving back to Utah after running Pen Bay Hospital for a number of years.  It was 1991 and the organ was a very attractive Rodgers two-manual instrument that had two ranks of real pipes and electronic stops to round out the rest of the sound. I was thrilled to take the position. After a few months Bill called me into his office for a meeting. I had no idea what was in store. He sat me down and said, “I think now is the time for you to start a children’s choir here at St. John’s.” I was stunned. I had no idea how to start or run a children’s choir. My previous job had been as music director of a large Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, California, where I played the organ and directed a 30-voice adult choir. Someone else with training in children’s choirs was responsible for the St. Bede’s Children’s Choir.

            After a moment of reflection I replied, “But Bill, I don’t have any experience or training with children’s choirs.” He smiled and said, “Well, you’ve got two girls and they have friends and there are kids here at St. John’s who would sing if you asked them. You’ll figure it out.” Meeting over.

            And so the St. John’s Children’s Choir was formed. Soon, with the help of some parents in the congregation and word of mouth at school there were 28 small singers in the Choir. They sang once a month but rehearsed weekly on Wednesday nights before supper. Soon the group was invited to sing at Montpelier at Christmas and later on as part of the annual concert of the Maine chapter of the American Choral Directors Association. They performed Rachmaninoff’s Six Songs for Children’s Choir and Piano, Op. 15 in Russian. At the end of the season I was presented with the Maine ACDA Conductor of the Year Award. Bill was characteristically amused. He said to me, in front of the congregation, “I said that you could figure it out.” It was that affirming, slightly amused voice that had encouraged me to try something that I wasn’t sure I could do, to push my boundaries. Thank you, Bill. I’m sure there are others amongst us who could contribute similar stories about the Rev. William B. Kennison.