As they prepare for one of the year's holiest days, family and friends gathered Friday at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church to remember Irene Kempest, a Nazi work camp survivor who died this week in an arson.According to the Rev. John Oulds, Kempest - in the memory of her late husband, Stanley - had made a donation so the church could buy four Christmas trees. At her funeral Tuesday, one of those trees was adorned with photos of the couple.
"Just about this time of year we go out to find things for our Christmas celebrations," Oulds said. "You see placed here in the sanctuary a large, artificial Christmas tree. It is here because of the kindness of Irene."
Kempest, 83, died Monday at Brandywine Hospital from smoke inhalation suffered early Sunday morning when, according to authorities, her Strode Avenue home was intentionally set on fire.
Wednesday, police charged George Donkewicz, who turns 23 today, of Valley, with murder and arson in her death. He was caught after allegedly starting another fire across the street.
Donkewicz is being held without bail in Chester County Prison to await his Dec. 22 preliminary hearing.
Kempest was born in Poland. When the Nazis occupied her country, she was sent to a work camp in Germany, where she was forced to stay until she was 15 and the camp was liberated. She later immigrated to the United States and began work as a housekeeper in Coatesville.
On Dec. 2, 1950, Kempest married Lukens Steel Co. worker Stanley Kempest at St. Stanislaus Kostka. They had one child, James, who lives in Philadelphia. Her husband died in 2005.
The night before the fire, Kempest attended Mass at St. Stanislaus Kostka, which according to Oulds was unusual. She typically attended Sunday morning Mass, he said.
"Before the tragedy, Irene was here in this church on Saturday," Oulds said. "So God had already begun to set the stage."
Kempest passed away just after noon Monday as her church's bells were ringing.
"The hour that we pray was the hour of her death," Oulds said. "With the bells of this church ringing, we were all announcing the fact that one of our own was going home."
Relative Pam Przychodzien, who spoke Friday on behalf of Kempest's family and friends, said Kempest was a giving and joyful woman who loved her family and appreciated her time with close friends, known to some as the "Polish contingent."
"She quietly lived her life, went to church and enjoyed her family and friends," Przychodzien said.
For 25 years, Kempest worked a difficult job in the Pepperidge Farm frozen foods department. "She never complained. When she spoke about her time at work, it was always about the people she worked with and the friends she had there," Przychodzien said.
Her favorite hobby was playing bingo with her close friends. And when Kempest won a round, everyone in the room knew it.
"She had her own way of shouting out, and we could hear her shouting out 'binga' over everyone else in the hall," Przychodzien said. The memory drew laughter from the mourners.