Roots remain important to Bishop Cunningham

by Luke Eggleston
SUN staff writer

Though the challenges confronting his office remain in the forefront for Bishop Robert Cunningham wherever he goes, he still keeps an interest in the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres.

Although he came to the Syracuse Diocese from its northern neighbor Ogdensburg, the new bishop spent 60 years in Western New York.

Laurence Vilardo of the law firm Connors and Vilardo has known Bishop Cunningham since he became associate pastor at St. John the Baptist Church in Kenmore. His firm has been working with the Buffalo Diocese since the 1990s.

Vilardo noted that Buffalo remains an important foundation for the bishop.
“He grew up here and Buffalo will always have an important place in his heart,” Vilardo said.
Whenever the occasion allows for it, Bishop Cunningham returns to Buffalo, where he ministered for more than three decades, to spend time with friends and family.

Robert Greene attended the same parish and grade school as the bishop, St. John the Baptist in Kenmore, but was a year behind him. Greene fondly recalls the bishop as a young man, noting that he was always, “very caring and personable.” Their friendship, however, developed when Bishop Cunningham received his second appointment, as associate pastor at St. John the Baptist. Greene recalled that the bishop was a very gifted speaker.
“The people of Syracuse will enjoy him as a homilist,” Greene said.

Larry Whistler has known Bishop Cunningham for more than 60 years. As recently as this past Easter, the bishop visited Whistler’s family for dinner. The two grew up in the same class at St. John the Baptist School and helped Msgr. Charles Klauder with routine maintenance of the parish facilities. According to Whistler, as well as members of the bishop’s family, Msgr. Klauder had a significant impact on the bishop. Msgr. Klauder initially engaged the bishop about considering the priesthood. “He was an important figure in our lives as youngsters,” Bishop Cunningham noted, adding that family life revolved around the parish community.
At the time, young men had an opportunity to enter the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary directly from grade school.

“When I was in eighth grade, he wanted to know where I was going to high school and he suggested the preparatory seminary,” Bishop Cunningham said. The blue-collar close-knit community in Buffalo influenced the bishop, according to Whistler. The two parted ways somewhat when Whistler enrolled in the Jesuit-run Canisius High School and the bishop entered the seminary. “It’s a strong family town with good Christian values,” Whistler said.
Sister M. Angelica Bielski, CSSF, became close to Bishop Cunningham when he was the chancellor of the Buffalo Diocese and she served as editor of the diocesan directory. In 2003, the bishop celebrated Mass during Sister Angelica’s Silver Jubilee. From the moment she met him, Sister Angelica knew he would one day be appointed a bishop. “There was just something about him,” she said. “He was born to be a bishop; he’s very pious but with a tremendous sense of humor. I was thrilled when he was elevated.”

Bishop Cunningham attended St. John Vianney Seminary after graduating from the Diocesan Preparatory School. His first assignment was at Blessed Sacrament Church in Kenmore before going to St. John the Baptist in 1972. He became secretary to the Buffalo Diocese Bishop Edward Head and assistant chancellor in 1974. In 1985, he was appointed chancellor of the Buffalo Diocese and in 1986 he was appointed vicar general. In 2002 he was assigned as pastor of St. Louis Church and in 2003 he was elected to diocesan administrator by the Diocesan College of Consultors. He was appointed bishop of the Ogdensburg Diocese in 2004.

Although he retains strong roots in Buffalo, the bishop stresses the important influence the Ogdensburg Diocese has had on him. “When I left Buffalo I was 60 and I had lived there all my life,” he said, noting that he would be leaving a pastoral assignment at St. Louis Church in downtown Buffalo for the rural community of Ogdensburg. “When the call came to go to Ogdensburg, I knew it was going to be a change. The people of Ogdensburg welcomed me warmly. I felt at home really from the beginning. The church is the same everywhere. The people love the Lord.

Talking tech
Bishop Cunningham helped develop technological element in Ogdensburg

Although Bishop Robert Cunningham is not necessarily a technophile, his track record in the Ogdensburg Diocese suggests at least a mild level of enthusiasm. “I’m open to it, but I’m really a neophyte to it,” the bishop said. For Bishop Cunningham, technology is simply another tool for expanding the faith. “We need to use every means of communication possible to get the message out,” the bishop said. “I don’t want to exclude anything.” During his five-year tenure in the north country, the bishop brought in information technologies coordinator Ian Fawcett.

Fawcett set about advancing the diocese’s technological capabilities right away. In addition to building the diocese’s Web site, Fawcett set up a twitter account and is also investigating the possibility of a Facebook page for the Ogdensburg Diocese, a tool many dioceses already utilize. “He’s been supportive,” Fawcett said. “When I got here I took it and ran with it.”

The bishop noted that Fawcett, whose home parish is St. James Church in Governeur,  has been an innovative element in the diocesan offices. “We’ve been very blessed with Ian. He’s been a great asset,” the bishop said. The bishop himself uses a BlackBerry to field e-mails and for phone calls and is fond of Dragon Natural Speaking software as well as Microsoft Outlook for the purposes of daily organization.

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