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Archive for May 23rd, 2010

Maybe a month or two ago, I joined a site called Classmates.com.  I’m of two minds about this; on one hand, there’s an *awful* lot of personal information that I needed to give that site in order for my former classmates to be able to track me down, and I’m not awfully comfortable with that.  But on the other hand, it’s great to catch up with kids I haven’t seen in fifty years (did I just write that?!).

I keep getting mail from someone who thinks he knows me, but I don’t know his name at all; he graduated from my grammar school in 1956, so, four years before I did.  He might recognize my maiden name, since there are a ton of people with that name who graduated from that school — I am related to them all.  But it doesn’t follow that he would know me personally because of the name, because I was the first one with that name to go through that school, and I spent eight years sounding out a Polish name that, if you saw it, you couldn’t pronounce it, and if you heard it, you couldn’t spell it.

Anyway, I had a note from him today in which he mentioned the former pastor of that parish.  What follows is what I wrote him; I’ll add to it in a bit.  I’m posting it here because it’s important to me that this great, good priest be memorialized.  We hear so much these days about Catholic priests who are unworthy of the name — maybe — can we ever really know what has gone on?  There was at least one instance locally of a priest accused of sexual misconduct who was later found to be innocent, and then there was the Bishop of Chicago, Cardinal Roger Something-or-Other, who was equally falsely accused.

Now mind — Monsignor Kunig, the priest I’m writing about, could legitimately have been accused (though not at that time) of abusing children.  He was a terror; ranted and raved at us, genuinely believed that all children were spawn of the devil, and needed frequent beatings to become civilized human beings.  But there was another side to him:

Monsignor Kunig was a BAVARIAN (not an ordinary German)    😉    Don’t forget, St. Margaret’s was a parish started by German farmers, and in fact, Margaret of Antioch (since declared a “myth” by the Catholic Church) was the patron saint of farmers.  Anyway, Monsignor’s sermons were tough to sit through.  I was in sixth grade when he died, and totally astounded by the genuine grief among the adults — he was such a terror to us little kids!!  I remember one afternoon, shortly before he died, when we were all gathered in church for one of his interminable rants, and he yelled at a little first-grader who was whispering to her neighbor.  She, naturally, began to cry, and so help me, Monsignor said, “No, no, little girl, don’t cry.  Please don’t cry.”  We sixth-graders, farther back in the church, looked at one another in astonishment — if we had known the expression back then, we would have been saying, “Who are you, and what have you done with Fr. Kunig?!”  [Note:  I should explain here that every month or so, the entire school would be required to assemble while Monsignor Kunig addressed us, in his thick German accent, for a good hour on the subject of God Alone Knows What.  We certainly couldn’t understand a word.]

Many years later, my mother, who was NO friend of Germans, told me that Monsignor Kunig got his elevation (from pastor to Monsignor) because he had used his contacts in Germany to get Jews out of the country.  Nobody at St. Margaret’s knew about it during the War, of course, and he came in for a lot of grief because of his German roots and very German accent; but when he was made a Monsignor, the reason came out, and I guess that was when the adults came to hold him in such high regard.  He was also incredibly gentle in confession; I can remember being assigned to his line, when we would be taken downstairs for our monthly confessions, and every single one of us was terrified before we went into the confessional, and every single one of us, on the way out, would whisper to the rest of the line, “He really is nice!”  “Nice” wasn’t a word a child would associate with Monsignor.

But as I said earlier, the adults loved him.  Many wouldn’t consider going to another priest for their confessions.  Apparently he had a profound understanding of the human condition, and was able to give advice that was practical and down the pipe, but at the same time rooted in the spiritual life that used to be the hallmark of Catholicism before it got mixed up in Social Activism.  (I can picture what he would have had to say on that topic, hard-working German that he was.)

He died in 1958, and was buried in the cemetery across the street from St. Margaret’s, St. John’s Cemetery in Queens — yes, the one where John Gotti is buried, and if you watch Law & Order, you’ve seen it there, too, under the name of St. Nicholas Cemetery or some such.  But if you’re from Queens County, you know St. John’s Cemetery, and you know exactly where it is.  Monsignor’s grave is literally across the street from the parish he served for some 20 years, within view of St. Margaret’s Church.  I wish he had been alive during Vatican II, though I know that would have been impossible; he was in his eighties when he died, and he had suffered cruelly from arthritis for all the years after World War II.  I would have liked to get his perspective on the changes in the Church.  I can imagine what he would have to say about my having become Orthodox, or so many Catholics leaving for other religions, or birth control; but his advice was reliable and based on his awareness both of the Gospel and of human nature.  How many priests do we know who can make that boast?

That said, I must add that he genuinely didn’t understand why, when the new convent was built, the nuns needed washing machines — after all, his own mother had cared for how many children and had never needed one!  I don’t think it ever occurred to him that his own mother, regardless of how many children she had, wasn’t caring for sixty and seventy grimy little boys and girls while wearing a white wool habit….

Well, we all have our strengths and weaknesses.  If our weaknesses can provide others with affectionate amusement after we’re gone, thanks be to God that they don’t evoke rage and bitterness.  Memory eternal, Monsignor Henry P. Kunig!

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