Obituary: Msgr. Richard Cunningham, canon lawyer and former seminary professor

After a long and courageous battle with cancer, Msgr. Richard Cunningham died at Regina Cleri Residence in Boston on Dec. 28, 2009. He had been in residence at the archdiocesan home for senior priests since his retirement in 2004. With him were family and friends, priests from Regina Cleri and Sisters Disciples of the Divine Master who serve on Regina Cleri staff.

A Boston native, he was born in the city’s Hyde Park section on Nov. 3, 1930. He was one of the seven children of the late Francis and Rose (Branley) Cunningham. An alumnus of Boston College High School, he attended Boston College before entering St. John’s Seminary. With the completion of his seminary studies he was ordained at Holy Name Church, West Roxbury by auxiliary Bishop Jeremiah F. Minihan on Feb. 2, 1957.

His first assignment was as an assistant at St. Mary Parish, Georgetown. In February 1960 he was named assistant at St. Joseph, Needham and three years later as assistant at St. Joseph, Medford.

In September 1969, a turn in assignments would mark a new phase of his life, one which would set the course of the rest of his priestly ministry. He was assigned to graduate studies in canon law at the Catholic University of America in the nation’s capital. When he had completed two years of studies and was granted the licentiate degree, he was assigned to doctoral studies, also in canon law, but this time at Rome’s Lateran University with residence at Casa Santa Maria, “the house on Humilty Street,” which was home to many US priests undertaking graduate studies at various Roman universities.

For the next couple of years he was busy with classes and writing his doctoral dissertation which focused on the canonical aspects of clerical celibacy, tracing the beginnings of the canonical discipline to its focal point at the Council of Trent. As with so much of his life, he found as much material for humor as he did for study in his courses and his own dissertation.

Returning to the archdiocese in 1974 he was named defender of the bond and then in 1975 vice-officialis of the archdiocese; both duties exercised with great care but great human warmth at the Metropolitan Tribunal. During these years he lives in residence at St. John the Evangelist, Hopkinton; St. Patrick, Watertown, St. Joseph Novitiate, Newton and finally at the pastoral Institute, Brighton.

His last and longest assignment came in 1977 when he was appointed to the faculty of St. John’s Seminary, where he served for 27 years until his retirement in July 2004.

During his teaching career he was teaching not only future priests, but also priests in parishes and beyond who were learning about the transitional law of the Church and ultimately the new (1983) Code of Canon Law. His easy manner, careful scholarship and amazing ability to weave stories (personal and historical) into his canonical presentations made him a sought after speaker for continuing education for priests and consultant for diocesan tribunals as new procedures came into place during these years.

The esteem he enjoyed nationally was noted in 1986 when his canonical peers elected him President of the Canon Law Society of America and in 1997 when they bestowed on him the “Role of Law Award” awarded annually to a CLSA member for outstanding “canonical service.” Sister Sharon Eurart, RSM, present executive coordinator of the Society said “Dick was not only an outstanding teacher and canonist, he was a wonderful person and a dedicated priest. His life and the joy with which he lived it was an example to countless people. The Church and the canonical community have lost a devoted member. His legacy will live on and we will all miss him very much. We pray that God will grant him eternal peace and happiness.”

The Venerable Pope John Paul II named him to the papal household on April 21, 1998 when he was made a prelate of honor with the title of Rev. Msgr. Most of the priests of the archdiocese remember well Dick’s outstanding historical review of the priests of Boston given at one of the archdiocesan convocations some years ago. Evident was his love of the priesthood, of his brother priests and of the archdiocese. Those who had him in the classroom had a genuine experience of an outstanding teacher and a truly fine priest who easily combined scholarly endeavor with pastoral sense and great humor.

Many will have stories to recount about meeting him in a seminary hall; strolling the seminary grounds; at Regina Cleri or a local eatery. You would look forward to even a brief chat because he offered a word of encouragement (even if you didn’t need it!) -- and always have a witty comment about himself, the Church or society. He genuinely liked meeting people and he liked seeing them smile. His side avocation as a magician, one of his several hidden “talents” provided another avenue for his warm and winning style.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley was the principal celebrant of Msgr. Cunningham’s funeral Mass at St. Paul Church, Wellesley. For many years Dick served as a weekend assistant at the Wellesley parish. Father Robert Congdon, a friend of many years served as the homilist. Among the more than 40 concelebrants were Central Region Bishop Robert Hennessey; former auxiliary Bishop John Boles; Msgr. James Tierney with whom Dick had worked at the Tribunal; Father Richard Fitzgerald and Msgr. Joseph Lind, pastor and former pastor respectively of the Wellesley parish, and Father James McCune, chaplain of the Office for Senior Priests.

Following the funeral Mass Msgr. Cunningham was buried in St. Joseph Cemetery, West Roxbury. His immediate survivors are his sister, Sister Theresa Cunningham, SND, one time librarian of The Pilot and staff member of the Boston Catholic Directory; his brothers William, Lexington; Edmund, Charlemont, and Philip, Fort Smith, Arkansas.