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A pastor whose reputation includes his antics as a puppeteer when preaching to children and his more serious work as author, speaker and video writer has been named the 2004 recipient of the Great Preacher Award.

Aquinas Institute of Theology chose Fr. Joe Kempf, pastor of Assumption Church in O’Fallon, Mo., because his preaching has the profound impact upon his congregation that the award seeks to recognize.

“I am convinced that of all the things I do, I can touch more lives in that 10 or 12 minutes a week than I can in anything else I do,” Kempf said. “That is something that both energizes me and terrifies me.”

Aquinas Institute, which is a graduate school of theology on the campus of Saint Louis University, will present the award to Kempf on Tuesday, Oct. 19. He will preach at vespers, or evening prayer, at 6:30 p.m. at St. Francis Xavier “College” Church, at the intersection of Grand and Lindell boulevards. He’ll receive the 10th annual Great Preacher Award during a reception following the prayer service in the church ballroom. Vespers are open to the public; tickets are required for the reception.

Letters from Assumption parishioners suggest Kempf does indeed touch lives. Parishioners describe him as a preacher who captivates a packed church week after week, someone whose boundless energy and joy inspire them. A Web site initially set up so the homebound and college students could hear Kempf preach now gets as many as 175 hits per homily. (Listen to Kempf’s homilies at www.assumptionbvm.org)

Fr. Kempf has been pastor at Assumption since 1999. He brought with him “Big Al,” a blue-bodied, gray-faced, two-toothed puppet who typically makes an appearance after Communion. Kempf and Al will “talk” for about 90 seconds, which Kempf uses to deliver the most fundamental message of Christianity: Love one another.

“One of the most beautiful responses I get is from parents who say their children quote Big Al to remind mom or dad that they need to be more like Jesus,” Kempf said.

Big Al came onto the scene when Kempf made an eight-part children’s video series about grieving, “No One Cries the Wrong Way.” The work was the result of intense personal study and reflection following a friend’s death. Kempf has possessed throughout his lifetime “a gut-wrenching passion for those who hurt in any way,” he said.

He has since written a book and produced a video for an older audience, all under the title “No One Cries the Wrong Way.”His work in ministering to the grieving and his videos on the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation have led to appearances as a keynote speaker at national conferences in the United States and Canada.

Above all though, Kempf considers himself a parish priest.

“What matters most to me in the whole world is that people find the joy that comes from living the way of Jesus,” he said.

Aquinas Institute of Theology established the Great Preacher Award in 1995. The annual award is presented to an outstanding preacher whose pastoral leadership has made the Catholic community stronger. The award is a powerful means of renewing the Church and promoting good preaching, which is central to the mission of the Dominican order. The award also is intended to sustain great preaching and encourage Catholics to be attuned to hearing the Word.

Fr. Kempf will share the evening with the recipient of a newer award, the Catherine of Siena Excellence in Ministry, which honors a non-ordained church professional. The honoree will be announced soon.

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