Thomas C. Purdy, a seminarian from the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, is the first recipient of the John M. Gessell Fellowship in Social Ethics at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Purdy is studying for his Master of Divinity degree at Sewanee's School of Theology.
The Rev. Dr. John M. Gessell, professor emeritus of the School of Theology, established the fellowship in 2004 to support student research and practice in the discipline of social ethics and theory. The annual fellowship will be given in alternate years to a student at the College of Arts & Sciences or a seminarian at the School of Theology.
Dr. Jennifer D. Michael, associate professor of English at the College of Arts & Sciences, chaired the fellowship committee and said committee members were looking for a proposal with practical relevance. "Students could propose work on an academic paper, a practicum in field research, or a combination of theory and practice," she explained. "Tom's proposal was well thought out and presented. He will address the socioeconomic implications of the living wage issue, particularly how it affects people who live and work in the Sewanee community. In trying to carry out Jack Gessell's wishes for this fellowship, the committee looked for proposals that showed individuals had commitment to exploring the subject and knowledge of what would be involved, yet conveyed an openness to discovery."
In addition to his academic studies, Purdy pursues a number of extracurricular activities in the Sewanee community. He helped organize the annual DuBose Lecture series for two years. He participated in and helped plan the third annual Episcopal Seminary Leadership Conference in October 2003 that welcomed students from the eleven Episcopal seminaries. He is the elected representative for the middler class and also serves as treasurer on the Executive Committee of the student governing association. He is a member of the Missions Committee, Seminary Choir and Sewanee Chorale, a community group. In his junior year, he was assistant editor of The Bull, the student newspaper. He has served as a sacristan in daily worship, a ministry he has participated in since his junior year, and has published the bulletins for the Chapel of the Apostles for three semesters. This summer, Purdy will represent the School of Theology at the Preaching Excellence Program at Villanova and will attend the Canterbury Cathedral summer course on the traditions and spiritualities of Anglicanism, along with two other seminarians from Sewanee.
Purdy and his wife, Donna, moved to Sewanee from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he held a management position for United Parcel Service, following graduation from Millersville University. After living several months in the middle Tennessee community, Purdy said, "We realized how difficult it is to maintain a household on low income wages of $6 to $7 an hour through my work study job at the seminary and Donna's part-time work. While this is only a three-year stint for me as a seminarian, it occurred to me that there are many people here who live at this level of income all of their lives. I felt called to begin a project that involved a way of reaching out to folks about this issue. This fellowship will help me do that."
John Gessell created the new fellowship to stimulate interest in the field of social ethics. "The fellowship provides a stipend up front so that the individual can begin work as soon as possible," said Gessell. "Resources combined with instruction and encouragement from faculty are readily available at Sewanee. This award will give students the freedom to undertake independent research. This is important to me and begins a way that I can contribute to the academic community during my retirement years. I look forward to seeing interest in the fellowship grow as these students do their work and are encouraged to present their results."
Gessell retired from the School of Theology in 1984 after serving 20 years as professor of Christian ethics. He was awarded B.A., B.D. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale University and served in parishes in the dioceses of Southern Virginia and Massachusetts. He is the author of Grace and Obedience, a collection of theological essays published by Proctor's Hall Press. Written over the past four decades, Gessell's essays address social and justice issues.