By ROB HERBST
The Catholic Week
MOBILE — While few were able to attend the graveside service for Msgr. Peter J. Cunningham because of COVID-19, there’s no doubt so many people throughout the Archdiocese of Mobile loved the faithful servant.
And he loved them as well.
“Peter loved people,” Christ the King Parish Pastor Fr. Matthew O’Connor said of Msgr. Cunningham.
“And I think people sensed that. I guess that’s probably one of the hallmarks of a good pastor, the love that a pastor has for his people.”
Fr. O’Connor spoke beautifully about his fellow Irishman, who died April 9 at the age of 89, during the graveside service April 15 at Catholic Cemetery of Mobile. A memorial Mass will be scheduled after public Masses return.
Msgr. Cunningham served throughout the archdiocese, including at St. John, Warrington (Fla.); St. Pius X, Mobile; St. John the Evangelist, Ozark; St. Vincent de Paul, Tillman’s Corner; St. Robert Bellarmine, Atmore; St. John the Evangelist, Enterprise; Our Lady of Lourdes, Mobile; and finally at St. Mary in Mobile, where he served as pastor from 1997-2011.
He loved people and he also loved being a priest.
“His dedication to ministry is highlighted by the very fact he did not retire at the age of 75 (the traditional age of retirement for priests in the archdiocese),” Fr. O’Connor said. “In fact he continued to be a pastor until the age of 80. That kind of speaks loudly and clearly about where his heart was and the desire of his heart.”
Msgr. Cunningham was born in County Offaly, Ireland on Oct. 22, 1930 to Joseph and Mary B. Cunningham. He was ordained at St Patrick’s Seminary in Carlow, Ireland, on June 10, 1956, and was soon serving in what is now the Archdiocese of Mobile.
According to Fr. O’Connor, Msgr. Cunningham was known for his sense of humor, even during his seminary days.
Fr. O’Connor said it was common for a seminarian to do a spiritual reading over the PA while others ate their meal in silence.
Or were supposed to eat their meals in silence.
“One day the dean called Peter aside and said ‘Mr. Cunningham, there’s always a lot of laughing at your table. Please explain.’ Well I don’t know if (he did explain), but the dean probably had the right culprit for the laughing at the table.
He added: “(When I think of Msgr. Cunningham, I) think in particular of his sense of humor. That was an integral part of his personality. … That sense of humor continued in his priesthood in the Archdiocese of Mobile. But it was very well balanced with his dedication to ministry and to prayer.”
He was dedicated to ministry, even if it meant a trip to the archbishop’s office.
Fr. O’Connor recalled how Msgr. Cunningham wanted to understand the theology behind changes instituted after the Second Vatican Council. Msgr. Cunningham was pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Ozark at the time and enrolled in summer school at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.
But this required leaving Ozark for New Orleans on Sunday afternoon and not returning until Friday evening or Saturday morning for Sunday Mass – without telling Archbishop John L. May.
“One day Archbishop May called him into his office and said ‘Peter, I’m getting a lot of complaints about you being absent from the parish. What’s going on?’” Fr. O’Connor recalled. “Peter of course had to tell him he was enrolled in summer school. So that brought summer school to a screeching halt. But he continued updating himself in every way he could.
“He was one of a kind. We will miss him in so many different ways.”
Msgr. Cunningham was preceded in death by his parents; and his brothers, Pat and Frank. Survivors include his sister, Pauline and his brother-in-law Joe; his nieces and nephews; and friends.