Kunkel, Father Francis

1951, June 15

Date of Birth: 1870, July 9 

September 6, 1951

Fathers and Dear Confreres:

In June we had the sorrow of learning of the death of one of our most venerable and beloved confreres, the oldest in the American province, Father Francis Kunkel, a director at St. Mary’s Seminary, Roland Park, Baltimore.

Francis William Kunkel, of a family originally from Bavaria, was born in Baltimore on July 9, 1870. His father was John Nepomucene Kunkel and his mother was Mary Rosina Kirchner, both fervent Catholics who had twelve children of whom Francis was the seventh. They raised their children in the fear of God. One of his maternal uncles, Aide-de-camp to General Robert E. Lee, was Colonel Francis William Kirchner. He was the friend – and often the host – of the future Cardinal Gibbons when Bishop Gibbons was Ordinary of Richmond [and before that, in North Carolina]; whence came the affection of the Archbishop of Baltimore for Francis Kunkel and the interest he always had in him.

In his early youth Francis Kunkel attended Holy Cross parish school. From there he went on to St. Joseph’s Academy (today Calvert Hall), run by the Christian Brothers. He was at Holy Cross for three years, from 1877 to 1880; at St. Joseph’s from 1880 to 1887, if you count in the two years, he spent at St. Gregory’s Academy, that is to say, at the music school of the Baltimore Cathedral. There he was Cardinal Gibbons’ train-bearer and His Eminence’s Mass-server. It was especially in the later years that he exercised the second function.

The solid and deep religion of his parents and the relationship of his family to the Archbishop of Baltimore (to speak only of external influences) had inclined his soul to priesthood. So, at seventeen years of age, on September 13, 1887, Francis Kunkel entered St. Charles College at Ellicott City. There he proved to be a fine student, and there he made solid friendships which lasted all his life. He left there in June 1892 as a Bachelor of Arts [sic].

His minor seminary days over, he very naturally entered St. Mary’s Seminary on Paca Street, where he took his Philosophy and began his Theology. But he was already thinking of the Society of St. Sulpice, and he made known his desire to enter it. For that, he had to approach the Cardinal Archbishop and he must have done so – considering the relationship of the Cardinal with his family – with confident simplicity. In any case, he kept framed in his room the reply of his eminent correspondent, dated July 12, 1892:

My dear Son,

            Your letter, which informs me of your desire and intention to become a Sulpician, surprises me but it also brings me satisfaction. I love those men to whom the Church in America, and especially the Diocese of Baltimore, owes so much.

            Although I had hoped to see you working as a priest in the missions, you are taking up a more important work in preparing seminarians for the holy ministry. You have my full consent and, I hope, you will obtain that of your parents.

James Cardinal Gibbons

Please remember me to your uncle and aunt.

Buoyed up by the consent of his archbishop, Francis Kunkel sailed on La Gascogne in 1896, and he came to Paris to finish his priestly preparation for St. Sulpice. He had already received tonsure and minor orders at the hands of Cardinal Gibbons. Anew at Paris, by reason of his amiability and his openness of soul, he made solid friendships with Monsignor McShane, S.S., today pastor of St. Patrick’s in Montreal and with Their Excellencies, Bishops Marroquin and Perdomo, the latter of whom recently died as Archbishop of Bogota and Primate of Colombia. From Cardinal Richard he received subdiaconate, diaconate, and priesthood. All these orders were conferred on him in the Church of St. Sulpice.

Father Francis Kunkel went forthwith to the Solitude in 1897-1898. Most of his fellow Solitaires have returned to God. But some are still alive. I list them according to their seniority as it used to be determined: Fathers Lepin, Boumier, Collange, and Gagnon. Once Solitude was over, he went back to the United States. On July 17, 1898, he celebrated his first Solemn Mass in Holy Cross Church, in the parish of his birth.

Our confrere was ready to begin his ministry. He was named teacher of Greek and English at St. Charles College in Ellicott City, where he had as a student Edward Mooney, the future Cardinal Archbishop of Detroit.

The following year he was sent to Menlo Park, to St. Patrick’s Seminary, which was under way at the behest of Archbishop Riordan of San Francisco. He was for twenty-six years the Treasurer there. When the minor seminary, St. Joseph’s, was separated from it to be opened in Mountain View, Father Kunkel remained Treasurer of that house for three years. There he taught French, Latin, and Algebra up to 1930.

Father Kunkel was almost identified with the West of the United States. There he made some very dear friends: Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan, whom we have just mentioned; John J. Cantwell, Bishop, then Archbishop, of Los Angeles. Other future bishops were his penitents: Archbishop Robert E. Lucey of San Antonio, Texas; Bishop James P. Davis of San Juan in Puerto Rico; and others. During his long stay in the West, many anecdotes, stories, and rumors took form around his person and his name. These tales made him a living legend.

The legend crossed the continent when he was called to Baltimore to be part of the body of those Sulpicians who were to take charge of the new St. Mary’s Seminary at Roland Park. Of course, like all legends, this one grew in the telling. New anecdotes and new stories evidenced the popularity of Father Kunkel.

For seven years in this new and magnificent seminary, he had charge of the business office. In view of his age, he was relieved of this duty, but he kept all his penitents, to whom he always remained devoted beyond measure. He continued to teach German, his mother tongue [sic] and French, which he spoke perfectly.

But it would be a mistake to think that his activity stopped there. Each week – at least when his involvements permitted it – he went to give to the Solitaries of the American province a Spiritual Reading or a chatty conference on Sulpicians he had known, loved, and admired in the course of his long life: Fathers Magnien, Vuibert, Haug, Schrantz, Tanquerey, Guilbaud, and – very likely – many others. It seemed (and knowing Father Kunkel, it could easily be believed) that the talks were vivacious, colorful, and edifying, lessons about events and men, for the benefit and training of future Sulpicians.

Outside the functions we have just spoken about, Father Kunkel engaged in several others. He was chaplain of St. Elizabeth’s Home. That institution, providing care for black children, he visited as often as he could. He used to leave the seminary, striding rapidly, his pockets full of chocolates and other treats, happily looking forward to the pleasure he was going to give these little charges. To this kind of spoiling (and it is the main thing) he added religious instruction and training in Christianity. He gave this in his down-to-earth way, very well suited for the children. He often came back carrying some things, simple but useful, that the children had made with their little hands to show the gratitude they had for this good Sulpician.

For he was good, lovable, gracious, charitable, accessible to everyone. He was so by nature and by apostolic zeal.

On some days he was seen, moving in his easy and rapid stride, toward the mail box with his hands full of letters which he was going to send off. He was mindful of anniversaries, feast days, and family remembrances. On Mothers’ Day, for example, he never failed to write to the families of his brothers and sisters, of his nephews and nieces, of his friends, to congratulate the mothers, calling to their attention the Blessed Virgin, entrusting them to her virginal motherhood. After each of the two World Wars he managed to locate or relocate the addresses of people with whom he had ties, families or friends, in order to help them or at the very least to ask them if they needed help. The one who writes these lines can attest to that because some recipients have told him so. Beyond that, he personally experienced the charitable delicacy of Father Kunkel and his confreres in regard to the house in which he pens this letter. These are unforgettable facts.

Father Kunkel was a man for all, little or great, poor or rich. Like St. Paul, he was all things to all men in order to win them to Jesus Christ. Joys, sorrows, worries of all kinds, failures and successes – he shared everything. In no way did his friendship ever fail anyone. He had the boldness which only the Holy Spirit can inspire and, as the Apostle observes, he had a soul full of the love of Jesus Christ. He never despaired. “He was very human,” someone said and wrote of him. It was true, and no doubt that partially explains his attachment to his family, his research to clarify the genealogies of his father’s and his mother’s families, and his benevolence towards everyone, whatever their religion.

But he was “very human” because he was a Christian and a priest to the marrow, always ready to proclaim the Catholic truth, to insist on its primacy and its right at the same time as he was insisting on the obligations it imposed on those who professed it. He was always ready to say, with a smile, to anyone who questioned his attachment to his forebears: “But they were men and women penetrated with the fear of God, living in the love of God, just like those you yourself are descended from.” He never believed that the children of God were Massa damnata et damnabilis [a damned mass worthy of damnation] – a teaching advanced by theologians who do not share our faith. His mind, that of a just man, was opposed to such an idea. That mind was open to Christian hope, for others as well as himself, and it was steeped in zeal and charity.

He was at his best in his brief illness. A few days before his death, seeing that he could no longer tolerate any food, he calmly said to one of his relatives, “You know, Cousin, that this cannot go on much longer.” Another day, when a lung examination was going poorly, he was keeping up his usual vivacity; and smiling, he was joking with the hospital people. Those who were looking after him had rarely seen anything like it. If they had remembered the quotation, they would have repeated what Cardinal Wiseman said on his deathbed: “He was like a schoolboy on the day before vacation.”

Some days later he was fingering his rosary in one hand and holding in the other the crucifix his recently deceased sister had left to him when she was called to God. Christ’s peace seemed to shine in his face. Near his bed were his dearly loved brother, Mr. Joseph Kunkel, his nephew, Father Nicholas Kunkel, S.J., and two Sulpician confreres. It was Friday, June 15th.

The following Tuesday the funeral was held in the chapel of St. Mary’s Seminary, Roland Park. His Grace, Archbishop Keough of Baltimore, pontificated. Bishop John J. McNamara, Auxiliary of Washington (previously Baltimore), was present along with numerous monsignori and priests. The eulogy was preached by our confrere, Father Bazinet, and the prayers at the grave were led by Bishop McNamara. Father Kunkel rests now in the little cemetery of St. Charles in Catonsville, where the bodies of our confreres await the hour of Resurrection.

Please, Fathers and dear confreres, pray for the repose of the soul of Father Kunkel, and accept the expression of my fraternally devoted sentiments in Our Lord.

P. Boisard

Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice