Lamplighter Luc left legacy of starry wonder and awe

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 25, 2009 

The late Lucian “Lamplighter Luc” Kemble, OFM, retreat master and astronomer, is remembered in this detail from a portrait by Cochrane artist Ann Manning.

When I last corresponded with him 10 years ago last week, I asked this engaging scholar of heavenly vision and enquiring mind how things were going since he moved from Cochrane’s Mount St. Francis Retreat to Lumsden, Sask. He responded, “I find myself ‘curiouser,’ excited by all the stuff still to discover.”

Only a couple of days later, Lucian “Lamplighter Luc” Kemble, Franciscan priest, popular lecturer on science and faith, and celebrated amateur astronomer, looked through his Celestron 280 mm Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope one last time. Then on Feb. 23, 1999 he rested from this world and joined the Artist Himself who “stretches out the heavens like a tent” – words from Psalm 104, one of his favourites. He was 76. How excited he must be over all the stuff he has discovered since that day.

Among those who knew him, Lamplighter Luc left a legacy of wonder and awe at simple beauty. He would go into near ecstasy over sunlight refracted through a glass of wine or a drop of water. (See also my column of Dec. 23, 2003.)

He won his place among astronomers internationally by his discovery one evening of a faint asterism (cluster of stars) in the northern sky not far from the constellation of Cassiopeia, referred to now in the literature as “Kemble’s Cascade.” He’s held in especially high regard by members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Edmonton Chapter, who named their library after him.

“Luc was an extraordinary man,” Edmonton star-hopper and coffee companion Bruce McCurdy wrote on the anniversary of his death. He was “the most observant person I have ever met, a man who could speak with immense wisdom yet who preferred to listen, to look, and to think.”

In a field often at odds with religion, “Lucian saw the Universe as revealed by observation and science to be God's work, and he was curious to understand what really made it tick,” Bruce said.

In my final discussion with Lamplighter Luc, I asked him about this tension.

“Basically for me, there can be no contradiction between what I know by faith and what I experience by even the most rudimentary scientific knowledge about the real world,” he responded. “Simply, they both use the questioning approach but have two different methods of inquiry.

"The beauty and elegant ordering of the universe cannot be the simple result of pure blind chance, but neither is it a machine-like constant creation of God's whim. Both are involved in the great questions of Who are we? Where from? Where to? As one great author once put it: 'If God could have created the universe any way he chose, is it not all the more incumbent upon us to study the way he actually did create it?'

“The scientist might ask the same question in a slightly different way: If the universe we live in is only one of any number of hypothetical universes, it is all the more incumbent upon us to study the real one. There is a difference of method: when scientists ask 'Why?' they usually mean, 'How does this thing work the way it does?' When theologians ask 'Why?' they usually imply, 'For what purpose does this and the whole universe exist?'"

Amidst all this heavenly grandeur, it would be easy to feel quite insignificant, as indeed one of his stargazing companions confided to him one night. To this the smiling Friar replied:

"Insignificant? I don't think so. I'm as big as the things I comprehend. You and I may be made from dust, true – but it's star dust!"

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page