Bishop Robert J. Cunningham will bring a style all his own to the Syracuse Diocese
By Connie Berry
A drive north to the Diocese of Ogdensburg follows the path of the St. Lawrence River. It’s a little over a two hour drive from downtown Syracuse and it winds past fields, farms and quaint village churches. The diocesan offices are located in the heart of Ogdensburg, and it’s safe to say the Bishop of Ogdensburg, Bishop Robert Cunningham, can be found in the hearts of the people there.
Bishop Cunningham will be installed as 10th Bishop of the Diocese of Syracuse at 2 p.m. on May 26 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. He will be surrounded by dozens of bishops, at least one cardinal, two archbishops, hundreds of priests, deacons, religious and laity — and no doubt many of the staff of the Diocese of Ogdensburg. Bishop Cunningham apparently won their hearts one cup of decaf at a time. He often stops by the office kitchen for a chat and a coffee break and the occasional chocolate treat. As one staffer said, “Lent was pretty tough around here.”
From Bill Kelly, who is maintenance director of the Ogdensburg Diocese, to Sister Jennifer Votraw, SSJ, chancellor, director of communications and parish planning, and to many others, Bishop Cunningham is “a pleasure to be around.” In fact, old friends and new describe the Syracuse Diocese’s bishop-to-be as “a good listener…a regular guy…a gem.” And all of them say, “You’re so lucky to have him.”
At one such coffee break a couple of weeks ago, many departments were represented. And Bishop Cunningham did indeed stop by for a cup of coffee. He didn’t stay for long that day however. “I’ll get going so they can talk freely,” Bishop Cunningham said.
Sister Ellen Rose Coughlin, SSJ, superintendent of diocesan schools in Ogdensburg, said “I see the evidence of how well he prepares before he goes into
our schools and yet he’s relaxed and he’s personable.”
And yet, according to Mary Lou Kilian, editor-in-chief/general manager of the North Country Catholic, “He’s definitely a leader. You know who’s boss.”
Combining prayerfulness, a keen grasp of humanity, a strong sense of family and the ability to “not miss much,” has led to great friendships and respect among the staff, the priests and the people of his most recent diocese. It is clear, Bishop Cunningham will be missed.
A typical day in the Ogdensburg Diocese begins for Bishop Cunningham at about 6 a.m. with morning prayers followed by Mass, which he sometimes celebrates with his secretary Father Bryan Stitt. After Mass is the usual time he sets aside to work on articles for the diocesan newspaper — he writes a weekly column — or on upcoming homilies or presentations. Next, he usually heads to the office which is conveniently located two doors down the street. Most of the offices of the diocese are located within three beautiful, large Victorian-era homes on Washington Street with a view of the St. Lawrence River from the backyard. The bishop’s residence is next door to the chancery which is next door to other diocesan offices. The rest of his day might be spent in meetings with various departments or special events scheduled days, evenings or weekends.
In comparing dioceses, Bishop Cunningham pointed out that he came from the Buffalo Diocese to the Ogdensburg Diocese and now he’ll be in the Syracuse Diocese and, sometimes, travel time is relative. “Here, the nearest bookstore might be 20 miles away but it doesn’t take me any longer to get to it than it did for me to get to one 20 minutes away in Buffalo.”
Bishop Cunningham did admit that it will be nice to be able to get home after an evening spent presiding at confirmations. The nearly 150 parishes, missions and oratories of the Ogdensburg Diocese are spread over 12,000 square miles. A testament to Bishop Cunningham’s determination, Father Stitt said, “As of June, he would have visited every parish in the diocese at least once.” It wasn’t uncommon for Bishop Cunningham and Father Stitt to have to spend the night in the town where the confirmation took place rather than drive home.
The ethnic mix of the Ogdensburg Diocese is not the same as the larger cities of Buffalo or Syracuse, Bishop Cunningham said, Ogdensburg being settled primarily by the French and Irish.
The Ogdensburg Diocese includes 16 prisons or jails, Bishop Cunningham said. He has spent time visiting the people there as well as those in the nursing homes and schools across the diocese.
“Syracuse is a move to a larger community, to living downtown. It’s a little different here,” Bishop Cunningham said, smiling. His current residence has a long, screened back porch that overlooks the river.
He is used to taking a walk along the river almost every day. If the weather is bad, he resorts to his treadmill. “I’ll have to find a different route,” he said.
Despite all the differences between the two locales, Bishop Cunningham feels there’s much in common between the upstate dioceses.
“The people are very warm, very friendly, very welcoming,” Bishop Cunningham said. “There are ties between the Diocese of Ogdensburg and the Diocese of Syracuse. We were both formed from the Albany Diocese. The first bishop of Syracuse, Patrick Ludden, spent time in Malone, New York, and a lot of our priests studied together.”
One of the aspects of his new job that Bishop Cunningham is most looking forward to is getting to know the people and the priests of the Syracuse Diocese.
“I’m looking forward to living among them, and serving them as a priest and bishop. I’ve never asked for any assignment. I’ve accepted the assignments I’ve been given. I’ve come to know and love the people wherever I’ve lived. Of course it’s difficult to pack up and head off to a new assignment, but that doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward to it,” he said.
For the people of Ogdensburg, giving up a beloved bishop has become almost commonplace. The past three bishops spent just a few years there before moving on to other assignments. The staff had high hopes that Bishop Cunningham would stay there until he retired. Heidi Macko, Ogdensburg regional director of religious education, said “I think he’s gotten close to people here in a short period of time.”
With a style that is approachable and genuine, Bishop Cunningham has made lifelong friends wherever he’s served. Msgr. David LiPuma is secretary to Bishop Edward Kmiec of the Buffalo Diocese. He has known Bishop Cunningham since his seminary days at Wadhams Hall in Ogdensburg. Msgr. LiPuma worked with then-Msgr. Cunningham when he was chancellor of the Buffalo Diocese. Msgr. LiPuma said Syracuse’s new ordinary is very supportive of vocations.
“Even when he was chancellor he reached out to the guys to get to know them. He even sacrificed himself so that he could make a trip to Rome to visit me while I was studying there,” Msgr. LiPuma joked. “Actually I think he just wanted to make sure I was studying.”
Msgr. LiPuma helped the bishop pack for his move to Ogdensburg and said he will help do the same when he moves to Syracuse. “You will be very lucky to work with him. He‘s a priest first,” he said.
When Bishop Cunningham served as pastor of Buffalo’s downtown parish, St. Louis, Msgr. LiPuma said he “took that parish to a whole new level.”
“It is the oldest church in the [Buffalo] diocese and he loved being a pastor there. It flourished under him,” Msgr. LiPuma said.
Steve and Kate Foley are friends of Bishop Cunningham’s having known him as their pastor when he served at St. Louis Church. They’ve kept in touch throughout the bishop’s assignments. “He’s just a regular guy. We go to dinner, do regular things. He loves to talk about the Bills, current events,” Steve Foley said. “He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s not one for glamor or showy stuff. He’s the kind of guy who would be more likely to go meet with people on a personal level.”
Foley thinks Bishop Cunningham will enjoy the fact that Syracuse is home to Syracuse University, Le Moyne College and other colleges.
Another friend, Mark Nasca, said his family plans to turn Bishop Cunningham into a Colgate fan. Nasca’s son plays on the school’s hockey team. He first met then-Father Cunningham when he was an altar server at St. John the Baptist Church in the Buffalo suburbs. Nasca now resides in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He said Bishop Cunningham has a very consistent personality, one that people are responsive to.
“He’s very bright, extremely loyal to family and friends, and a very, very compassionate man. He thinks before he speaks and he thinks before he acts. He has a calming influence. His presence is very subtle and very stable,” Nasca said.
Sister Ellen Rose described Bishop Cunningham as “unflappable.” A look at the family picture taken at his Ogdensburg ordination and installation features not only his sister, Eileen Korn and her husband, Dr. Ronald Korn, and the bishop’s brother, Patrick and his wife, Sheila, but also their offspring. Bishop Cunningham’s brother and sister have 13 children between the two of them. Bishop Cunningham said he has 28 grandnieces and grandnephews, the most recent addition being Richard Robert Korn baptized by his great-uncle in San Diego last October. Keeping all those names committed to memory may help keep Bishop Cunningham on his game.
There are a few other photos that are special to Syracuse’s newest bishop. The sitting room in Bishop Cunningham’s Ogdensburg residence boasts some formidable portraits. They include all 12 previous bishops and they line the four walls of the high-ceilinged room. Bishop Cunningham said he finds the portraits comforting, not intimidating. He is anticipating portraits of the nine previous bishops of the Syracuse Diocese hanging on the walls of his new residence.
There are definite differences between the Syracuse Diocese and Bishop Cunningham’s previous diocese, but with more than 30 years served within the chancery in Buffalo before being ordained a bishop, Bishop Cunningham’s administrative skills are well-honed.
He worked closely in Ogdensburg with Msgr. John Murphy, moderator of the curia and vicar for pastoral services there. Msgr. Murphy has been working at the chancery for more than a dozen years. Bishop Cunningham was his fourth bishop while he’s been active at the chancery. “Our priests are universally sorry to see the bishop leave, especially after seeing the two before him leave so shortly,” Msgr. Murphy said. “Bishop Cunningham is a good person and a good priest, hopefully we’ll get another good bishop.”
The widely-used description of Bishop Cunningham as a pastoral leader and a priest above all else will hopefully continue as the Syracuse Diocese welcomes its new shepherd. And, if his friends and colleagues are correct, we’ll be lucky to have him.