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The Rev. Canon Constance C. Coles, of Clinton, Connecticut, and New York, New York, died at age 77 in Yale New Haven Hospital on August 10 after a brief illness resulting from pancreatic cancer otherwise undetected.
A most gentle and modest woman – with a will of iron – Constance sought to serve and honor God by serving and honoring, with joy, every person she encountered throughout her life.
For 43 years Constance was a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York. The Bishop of New York will preside at her burial on Friday, September 23, at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.
Constance was born April 13, 1945, in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in Glen Cove on Long Island. Her mother was Edna M. Kempsell, a daughter of early 20th Century immigrants, and her father was Robert R. Coles, a member of an old Quaker family and a direct descendant of the Robert Coles who established the English settlement at Glen Cove in 1668. As a birthright Quaker she first attended Matinecock Meeting, but in her youth her uncle, the Rev. George F. Kempsell, Jr., helped guide her toward the Episcopal Church.
After Glen Cove High School, Constance attended Wells College, in Aurora, New York, then a women’s college. There she loved the community of learning, singing in the Wells Choir, friends, the village without a stoplight, Lake Cayuga in all its seasons – and seeing the Northern Lights.
Later Constance said that Wells had set her on the path that led her to her vocation: as a freshman Constance took a course on critical reading of scripture that changed everything for her. She majored in religion, graduated in 1967, and headed to Union Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights.
In those days our country was as sharply divided as it is now. At Union Constance became immersed in doing theology through study and engagement with students and faculty in thoughtful action for social justice, including in the civil rights and anti-war movements and reborn efforts for women’s rights.
Women then could not be ordained in the Episcopal Church, so Constance could not consider that path, and in 1970 she became a church educator. But the Episcopal Church had begun taking steps toward authorizing women to become priests. While serving as Director of Christian Education at Garden City Community Church (UCC) – where Constance first preached regularly – she could not ignore a call to the ordained ministry.
Constance returned to Union for a second degree and in the Diocese was led to The Church of the Epiphany. Congregation and clergy supported her warmly. In January 1979 she was ordained a priest at the Epiphany – one of the first women priests in the Diocese – and immediately engaged as a curate.
In 1986 Constance was called as rector of All Saints’ Church, Harrison – the third woman rector in the Diocese. In Harrison she actively joined in community service and ecumenical and interfaith work. Through those relationships she was able to help organize a memorial service on the town green just days after 9/11 – led by members of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities.
In 2001 the Bishop of New York asked Constance to serve as Canon for Ministry. As canon she was responsible to the Bishop for supporting people discerning a call to ordained ministry, both before and during their theological studies, guiding them through ordination, and overseeing them for two years afterwards. In that role she shaped the formation of dozens of deacons and priests for the Church. In her words, in her decades in ministry Constance did much discernment about vocations — her own and those of others!
After serving as canon for two Bishops, as a Trustee of The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine for 21 years, as a board member of Metropolitan Japanese Ministry for over two decades, and in various other ministries, Constance officially retired in 2013. Until the pandemic limited in-person engagements, she continued serving part-time at the Cathedral and for short periods in parishes in New York and Connecticut.
Constance is survived by her husband of 53 years, William McKeown, and their children, Sarah Coles McKeown and Isaiah Coles McKeown, and, thanks to her children’s sojourns abroad, “adopted” families in Denmark and The Netherlands. She is also survived by her brothers, Franklin Coles and Reed Coles, and her sister, Merribelle Coles, their spouses and children, and numerous cousins and their offspring. (In later years, to her surprise, she found herself recognized as matriarch of a considerable family.)
Gifts in Constance’s memory may be made to Wells College (170 Main Street, Aurora, NY 13026), Union Theological Seminary (3041 Broadway, NY, NY 10027), The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Avenue, NY, NY 10025), the Global Women’s Fund of the Episcopal Diocese of New York (1047 Amsterdam Avenue, NY, NY 10025-1798), Manhattan Country School (150 West 85th Street, NY, NY 10024), Rural & Migrant Ministry (PO Box 475, Cornwall on Hudson, NY 12520), or Planned Parenthood of Southern New England (345 Whitney Avenue, New Haven, CT 06511).