Lifting high the cross


Published in The Leaven (April 17), click to enlarge By Heather Nelson Screenshot 2015-04-23 09.38.37


Chip. Chip-chip. Chip.

Bob Cunningham is chipping away at a thick tree branch to create a notch. Once finished, he places another branch perpendicular to the first, to form a cross.

Cunningham smiles.

And his smile says it all.

As Cunningham peers through his round glasses at the creation he holds in his rough hands, it doesn’t look like much. But it means a lot to him.

Cunningham, an almost 90-year-old resident at Claridge Court in Prairie Village, creates crucifixes out of fallen tree branches.

His first creation hangs in the entryway of his home.

“It’s not me, it’s the Holy Spirit telling me what to do,” Cunningham said with a smile inching across his face.

Ten at a time, Cunningham pieces each cross together, places it on a base, and glues the crucified Christ onto the cross. Two of his most important tools are invisible to the casual observer: time and patience.

Before the Holy Spirit directed him to take up this new project, Cunningham repaired rosaries for parishes around the area. He racks up near one thousand miles each month driving around to pick up and drop off repaired rosaries, he said.

“When I started making [and repairing] rosaries, I felt there was something missing,” Cunningham said.

But on a walk one day, Cunningham spotted a Corpus lying in the grass. He credits the Holy Spirit with the inspiration to take it with him, craft a cross for the misplaced Jesus and launch his crucifix ministry. He’s shared his gift with those in Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and Christ Renews His Parish retreats. Cunningham also carries crucifixes in his car.

“Just in case I see someone who I think might enjoy one,” Cunningham said.

His joy is contagious.

Rob Salierno, executive director at Claridge Court, has known Cunningham for 10 years.

“Mr. Cunningham is always helping people,” Salierno said. “He has a lot of passion — people follow his lead.”

Cunningham begins his day with scripture and daily mass at Cure of Ars, where he is a member of the parish. Cunningham is in tune with the Holy Spirit, who he trusts to work through him.

“Everyone tries to explain what love is, but if you really believe in God, he loves everybody,” Cunningham said. “Why should I resist that?”

Through service and his smile, Cunningham does just that — he loves.

Salierno said that Cunningham is dedicated to bringing forth religion through the Catholic faith.

“His mission never stops — even over 80,” Salierno said. “He’s leading the way in a Christ-like manner.”

Cunningham crucifixes are carefully packaged in small gift bags that include a number of pamphlets. These pamphlets include information about the Holy Spirit, prayer cards and a rosary booklet. Cunningham puts these together as well.

He reveres the rosary. In his pamphlet he includes four new meditations, which he said are important things for the laity to pray for.

“We really need those ‘Hail Marys,’” Cunningham said. “These are really powerful prayers.”

Salierno said that Cunningham is always looking for ways that he can serve others. His family often joins him for dinners at Claridge Court.

“Their laughter — it’s apparent the love they all share,” observed Salierno.

Catherine Solie, the wellness director at Claridge Court, said she interacts with Cunningham often. She describes him as very giving, but it’s his personality that attracts many.

“He really lives life to the fullest,” Solie said. “It’s his sense of humor — people really enjoy him.”

But Cunningham isn’t searching for recognition or praise. He just patiently waits for the Holy Spirit to guide him.

“I don’t know what my next project will be, but whatever it is the Holy Spirit will tell me what to do,” Cunningham said.

Students host, serve on annual Koinonia retreat


(From March 6, not published in The Leaven)

By Heather Nelson

Snow lightly falls on the unpopulated campus at the University of Kansas. Most students snuggle in bed on this last day of rest before December finals. But nearly 50 students at the St. Lawrence Campus Center in Lawrence, Kan., gathered to hear their fate.

What is God asking of them on this early Friday morning? How would God call them to serve the community?

Students kneel before Jesus in the chapel. One by one, the lay director calls students forward.

“Chuck, you will serve as a resource and bring one person on this retreat.”

“Yes, Lord. I long to do your will.”

Months before the retreat, students commit to serve as a part of a team on a retreat called, “Koinonia.” Students lead the retreat twice a year, fall and spring, at Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg, Kan.

Chuck Hollwedel, a sophomore at the University of Kansas, said he served on retreat because he needed to share God with others.

“Koinonia really changed my life, and opened me up to God and His love,” Hollwedel said. “I wanted to help do that for others.”

Hollwedel served as a “resource” on the retreat. As a resource, Hollwedel gave a talk and led a small group of retreantants.

“As resources, we are looked at as leaders of the retreat,” Hollwedel said. “However, with my experience as a resource, [the retreatants] truly led the group by the profound things they would say in our discussions.”

Six groups comprise the 50-person Koinonia team. Each week the team meets to prepare for the retreat. Meetings start with breakfast followed by a meditation. Then, the teams split off to work on different tasks. Resources practice their talks; “wheaties” prepare the menu and décor; music team compiles all music for the weekend.

The lay director, Gage Shirley, and coordinator, Sarah Regan planned and organized the meetings. Regan, a sophomore at the university, assisted Shirley with the logistics of planning a retreat.

“Basically, I was the one with the watch [on the retreat],” Regan said. “Anything that Gage needed, I did.”

Ten years ago, the university hosted the first St. Lawrence Koinonia, also known as SLK. The retreat was adapted from the same retreat at the University of Illinois. Since then, the retreat has grown, and most students involved with the St. Lawrence attend the retreat before graduating.

“The retreat exists to introduce people to Christ and to allow the opportunity for people to experience Christ in a more personal way,” Regan said.

Along with many others, Regan stressed the importance of a student-led retreat, which provides students with an instant sense of community.

Sophomore Libby Grube, who served as a resource, said the with student leadership, the retreat earns a different sense of credibility.

“[It’s] not the type that comes with age or degree or experience, but the credibility that only a few years, months or even weeks ago, I was in the exact same place as some of those retreatants,” Grube said.

Another resource, junior Sam Cunningham, said that the experience is more personal when a peer is guiding you.

“Student leaders are much more approachable to other students than a teacher, faculty member, or other adult may be,” Cunningham said.

The retreat revolves around the paschal mystery — the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Koinonia lasts one weekend: Friday is “Die Day,” Saturday is “Rest Day,” and Sunday is “Rise and Go Day.” The talks for each day fall under each theme.

Retreatants take part in the sacraments, enjoy holy leisure, and grow in faith through prayer and fellowship.

Senior Beth McMillen didn’t know what to expect when signing up for the retreat. Like most others, McMillen’s friends encouraged her to go on the retreat. Others heard an announcement at mass that enticed them.

“I loved how quickly I connected with everyone that I met; I felt like I knew them for years,” McMillen said.

Like many others, McMillen applied what she learned from her peers to make changes in her life.

“One thing that stood out to me is that we must renew our love for Christ each day,” McMillen said. “I need to remind myself each day to pick up my cross, just as Jesus did for us.”

Though the retreat lasts a few days, the purpose is to extend that community well past the weekend. For this reason, a “Fo(u)rth Day” is organized to allow students to share how they’ve continued to live out Christ’s mission after the retreat. This year, Shirley and Regan challenged students to make a concrete resolution that stemmed from their experience on Koinonia.

“All weekend we speak of how to grow in personal relationship with Christ,” Regan said. “But fourth day shows that we are not meant to keep the joy of the Gospel to ourselves.”

Administrators celebrate New Evangelization during Catholic Schools Week


(From Feb 6, not published in The Leaven)

By Heather Nelson

Schools across the country celebrated the Church’s foundation in the New Evangelization: Catholic Schools.

The observance ran Sunday, Jan. 25 – Friday Jan. 31. Schools celebrated with masses, open houses, and activities for students, families and parishioners.

The focus for Catholic schools this year is to serve the underrepresented population within Catholic schooling.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released a report in November 2014 about the relationship between Catholic schools and underserved populations, mainly Latino Catholics. Archbishop George Lucas (Omaha, Neb.) and Bishop Daniel Flores (Brownsville, Texas) presented the report to the Fall General Assembly.

Archbishop Lucas said that Catholic schools are vital to the Church’s mission of spreading the Gospel message

“The New Evangelization calls us to open up an inviting space where God’s grace can take hold and bear fruit, to welcome the Spirit in ways that support conversion, touch the heart, and inspire,” Archbishop Lucas said at a presentation to the Fall General Assembly.

Using the New Evangelization, Catholic schools across the country can begin to reach the underserved populations.

Bishop Flores emphasized the importance of reaching out to the diverse populations, which is supported by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.

“Welcoming more children from diverse populations in our Catholic Schools, and particularly making an effort to reach out to underserved communities, is important for the future of Catholic schools and of our Church,” Bishop Flores said at a presentation to the Fall General Assembly.

Each year, Catholic Schools Week celebrates Catholic education. According to the report by the USCCB, Catholic schools are outperforming public schools in test scores, graduation rates, and college attendance.

Heather Huscher, principal at Saint Matthews Catholic School in Topeka, said that even with a rising Latino population, she hasn’t noticed significant change in the school. Huscher said that she noticed one or two Latino families bring others in.

Huscher said that Catholic Schools Week is centered on the core values: excellence, family and God’s love. The school ran programs that promoted these values during the week.

“We can catechize the family by getting them to buy into the idea that you’re not here for yourself,” Huscher said. “Kids, then, make the faith more their own.”

Kathy O’Hara, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., introduced outreach to the underserved before hearing about the USCCB report. Based on information from Fr. Joe Corpora, O’Hara learned that there are many different ways to engage the Latino community.

“Some families may have a different understanding of [Catholic] schooling. In Mexico, Catholic schools are for the elite,” O’Hara said.

Schools should consider individual contact with Latino families rather than mere mailings, O’Hara said. She added that hiring bilingual staff would be beneficial in creating relationships with Latino families.

O’Hara remained positive about the ongoing development of the New Evangelization in the schools.

“Catholic Schools Week provides the opportunity for us to celebrate the success that we’ve had and to reaffirm the mission: that Jesus Christ be known and love by our students,” O’Hara said.