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Obituary: Father James McCune, former pastor in Canton, chaplain of senior priests

By Father Robert M. O'Grady
Posted: 12/16/2011

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Father James L. McCune Pilot file photo


Widely acclaimed for his extraordinary service to his brother priests, especially during his most recent assignments as Director of the Office for Senior Priests and more recently as Chaplain for Senior Priests, Father James L. McCune died at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on Dec. 7. He had celebrated his 79th birthday on Oct. 1.

In the past few weeks his health deteriorated very rapidly. He had battled various forms of skin cancer and accepted treatments, both proven and experimental. Within the past few weeks the disease spread first to his neck and then to his brain. So rapid was the metastasis, that many priests said "I can't believe it, he looked pretty good at the funeral last week." During the past dozen or so years Father McCune had been at almost every funeral (well over 200) of an archdiocesan priest celebrated in the archdiocese. For him it was a "happy duty for the brothers."

The only child of the late Herman and Stella (Sweeney) McCune, both native Rhode Islanders, he was born in New York City on Oct. 1, 1932. The family moved to Jamaica Plain and then to West Roxbury; Jim attended St. Thomas Aquinas school in Jamaica Plain and Boston College High School then located in the Hub's South End. He entered the archdiocesan seminaries in 1950 and after completing his seminary studies, he was ordained to the priesthood at Holy Cross Cathedral on Feb. 3, 1958 by Archbishop Richard Cushing.

He served as an assistant in two parishes of the archdiocese St. Paul, Wellesley (1958-1965) and Blessed Sacrament, Jamaica Plain (1965-1973). In April 1973, just a few weeks after he had been made a cardinal, Boston's archbishop Humberto Sousa Medeiros named him as his secretary and master of ceremonies. He served the cardinal and the archdiocese, as he seemed to do everything: quietly, efficiently and attentively. His nearly decade long service with "Sousa" ended when the cardinal named him pastor in Canton in February 1983.

His only assignment as a pastor was St. John the Evangelist in Canton. Even a dozen years after his retirement he was amazingly still part of the parish family. People will ask visiting priests about him; he was frequently requested to celebrate a Funeral Mass or witness a marriage. Just a bit more than three years ago he celebrated the golden jubilee of his priestly ordination; the church was packed with parishioners and priests. It seemed as if he knew the name and biography of everyone who was there.

Once time had given him the permission to tell stories he was delighted to relate both serious and funny events that happened during the years (1973-1983) he was secretary and master of ceremonies for Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, or as he reverently but short handedly named him "Sousa" -- the late cardinal's middle name. Jim was not one for collecting anything about himself. But there is a famous photo of him, taken at the Papal Mass on Boston Common in October 1979. Jim is discreetly nestled between Pope John Paul II and "Sousa" with an open umbrella over the figure of the Holy Father. Miraculously it seemed that Jim was so located that he didn't need anything to keep him dry!

One of Jim's truly stellar qualities, and there were many, was his special ability to be able to answer a question posed to him. It always seemed he could give the Church's answer but in a way that invited you to accept that this is what we need to do together. He could deliver a "no" in such measured and calm style that, while you might have wanted a "yes," you would still walk away knowing that he understood you and felt any disappointment you did.

Jim was an avid fan of Boston College's hockey team. He'd had season tickets for more than 40 years, first at old McHugh and latterly at Conte Forum, where he was just ten rows behind the Eagle's bench. He knew the game, and knew it well. Red lines and Blue lines weren't just branches of MBTA; you sensed he'd have made a great and judicious official, if he laced on the skates.

He and several priests of the archdiocese were well known for their annual trek to Florida in February; with a single suitcase and accompanying golf bag he set out with classic Jim McCune style: nothing more, or less, than what was needed; a place for everything, and everything in its place; and ready to enjoy for those annual days the company of brother priests, principal among them Msgr. Frank McGann, senior priest at St. Joseph, Needham, who proclaimed the Gospel at the Funeral Mass.

Cardinal Seán O'Malley was the principal celebrant of Father McCune's Funeral Mass celebrated Dec. 14 at the parish church where he had served as pastor for almost two decades (1983-2000), St. John the Evangelist in Canton. His close friend and long time parochial vicar at Canton, and presently pastor of St. Helen Parish, Norwell, Father Thomas Maguire served as the homilist for the Funeral Mass.

There were over 100 priests concelebrating the Funeral Mass, among them: auxiliary Bishops John Dooher, Robert Hennessey, Arthur Kennedy and retired auxiliary Bishop John Boles; Merrimack Regional Vicar Father Arthur Coyle; and archdiocesan vicar for parish life and leadership, Father Thomas Foley; Msgr. John P. McDonough, senior priest, Winthrop.

Father Michael McLellan, present pastor of St. John, Canton; Father James Canniff and Father Richard Mehm, senior priest and pastor respectively, Immaculate Conception, Malden; Father Robert Kickham and Father Jonathan Gaspar, secretaries to Cardinal O'Malley; Father Matthew William, office for the New Evangelization of Youth and Young People; Father Lawrence Rondeau, senior priest, Salem; Fathers Raymond Kiley and Richard Conway, both former parochial vicars with Father McCune and respectively parochial vicar at Sacred Heart, Quincy and pastor, St. Robert Bellarmine, Andover.

His good friends and long time collaborators at St. John, Sisters Catherine Gilmore, CSJ and Francis Marilyn DeCoste, CSJ were present serving as reader and presenter of gifts, respectively; Sisters Disciples of the Divine Master with whom he had worked at Regina Cleri and Carmelite Sisters from Marian Manor, South Boston and St. Patrick Manor, Framingham whom he came to know during his service for senior priests.

Also in attendance were various staff members from the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Braintree, with the various offices in Clergy Services leading the contingent.

Following the Funeral Mass, Father McCune was buried with his parents in St. Francis Cemetery, Pawtucket, Rhode Island.