by Patti Armstrong, DCA Writer
When Father Patrick Cunningham was ordained a priest in 2013, he had a special understanding of his commitment after 42 years of marriage before his wife, Judy died from cancer. 'My first love had been taken back to God,' Fr. Cunningham explained. 'And now I was called to be a new groom to the Church.'
Cunningham was born in 1944, the oldest of 10 children in Phillipsburg, Kan. where his father owned a hardware/automotive store. He felt an early call to the priesthood and, for his freshman and sophomore year in high school, attended a minor seminary boarding school. That is, until he set eyes on dark-haired, blue-eyed Judy Kennedy at a summer picnic. It was love at first sight-for Patrick, that is. Judy was not interested beyond friendship.
After meeting Judy, Patrick stayed home and enrolled in the public school for junior year. He got Judy a job at his dad's store where he also worked- 'so I could be around her more'- and he gave her a ride from school to work on his motorcycle every day. Although his ardor for Judy was unwavering, so was her lack of interest in him.
After high school, Judy went away to a school for nursing and Patrick stayed closer to home for business. 'Before we went off to school, Judy made it clear that I should find a nice Catholic girl to settle down with,' Fr. Cunningham explained.
He followed her advice and began dating and even went steady with one girl during freshmen year, but no one else compared to Judy. She often needed a ride to return home on weekends since her school was 120 miles away. Guess who was happy to offer?
'I'd go the 120 miles one way on many weekends and that gave us a couple of hours to talk,' he said. Eventually, Judy began seeing Pat as more than just a friend. They started dating during senior year and married in January of 1966. After college, Pat took a job with Boeing in Wichita, Kan., and Judy worked in a hospital.
During this time, they had three children. One day, a friend wanted to know if Judy and Pat wanted to take in a Native American baby. Judy thought it was a request to babysit. No, this friend who had adopted a Native American baby had been called that morning by someone at the welfare department about a three-day old baby available for adoption.
They were not planning to have any more children but agreed. 'By 2:30 that afternoon, someone called and asked when we could come to get the baby,' he said. Their children, ages 5 to 8, adored their new baby brother, Sean Fitzgerald Little Feather. But, when he was 16 months old, he died from spinal meningitis. Although grief stricken, Pat and Judy clung to the words a priest had spoken at one of the World-Wide Marriage Encounter events they had attended. 'Children don't belong to you. They are either going to grow up and leave your house or God may call them before that. They are not yours; they are God's. They are entrusted to you and you need to make sure they get back to God.'
By then, the federal government no longer allowed Native American babies to be adopted out of their tribe. But, Sean had opened up their hearts, so Pat and Judy had four more children.
North Dakota roots
In 1971, Pat moved his family back to Phillipsburg to where he and a brother took over the family business. Right after the store's 50th anniversary in 1988, they sold it to a competitor. Around this time, Cunningham drove to the North Dakota town of Lansford for an uncle's funeral on Christmas Eve and returned again in April for a niece's wedding.
The Cunningham family had a homestead in that area. His grandfather and uncle still lived on the family homestead. 'My father had left in the 1930s, but we visited relatives there every summer,' Fr. Cunningham explained. 'I thought North Dakota was the greatest place on earth. The sun didn't go down till about 11:00 at night in the summer. In the winter, cousins would send pictures of snow caves and winter fun.'
During his April 1989 visit, Cunningham applied for a job with I. Keating Furniture in Minot and was offered it. With three kids in three different colleges and the four younger ones still in grade school, they began a new adventure in North Dakota.
Their children attended Little Flower Catholic School and then Bishop Ryan High School and Judy worked at St. Joseph's Hospital. After Mass one Sunday at the Church of the Little Flower, Pat noticed a brochure in the literature rack about the diaconate program. It stayed in his thoughts until he finally applied in 1992. Three years later he was ordained a permanent deacon.
Call to priesthood
In 2006, Judy discovered she had stage 4 breast cancer. It was hard news, but they leaned on their faith as they had always done. In February 2008, she died. Pat was now alone, without his life-long love.
After 10 years working at I. Keating, then another 10 years with ING Financial, Pat and Judy had planned to retire and travel together. 'I decided I would go ahead and still do that,' he said. But only two weeks after Judy died, a parishioner said to Pat, 'You know, you can become a priest now.' Those kinds of comments kept coming up.
Pat considered it. He even visited Sacred Heart Seminary for older men in Wisconsin in 2008 where the rector told him, 'If you decide to apply, I can tell you we will accept you.' Pat returned to Minot and continued his habit of spending time in Eucharistic adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and putting his life in God's hands.
It was not long before he applied to the priesthood for the Bismarck Diocese. In 2009, Pat was accepted and contacted Blessed John XXIII Seminary in Boston which is for men 34-59. Pat was already 64. On top of that, his college transcripts showed he had been a very poor student.
'We aren't sure you can handle this,' Pat was told.
'I don't have the club bars or the girls to distract me now,' he explained to them. He was accepted.
'After almost 50 years out of school, it was a challenge, but the Holy Spirit did okay,' Fr. Cunningham explained. 'More than once I threw my books against the wall and decided to leave. It seemed that every time, there would be a card in the mail for me from someone telling me they were praying for me. So, I'd pick up my books and start studying again.'
In 2013, at the age of 68, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, Pat became Father Cunningham at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit along with five other men. He was assigned as pastor to the Church of St. Bonaventure in Underwood where he has been for almost six years.
How has it been being a priest? 'Oh, my gosh, it's indiscernible,' Fr. Cunningham said. 'It was just like our wedding day. When I was asked why I wanted to be a priest, my response was that I wanted to give my life completely in the same way I had given my life to Judy. At ordination, I promised myself for the rest of my life to my bride the Church.'