Local Parish Priest Stories
MARCH 2017 PRIEST OF THE MONTH - REV. JAMES CUNNINGHAM
Father James Cunningham grew up on Buffalo’s West Side, the only child of Mathilda and James B. Cunningham, a former Buffalo Police Commissioner. Father Cunningham had a love of reading, which aided him greatly as he attended the former Holy Angels parish school on Porter Avenue, and Bishop Fallon High School.
During his school years, Father Cunningham’s home parish had been St. Joseph’s New Cathedral on Delaware Avenue, which was later re-commissioned as Blessed Sacrament Church when the cathedral building was torn down.
With his eye on a teaching career, he went on to attend Canisius College where he earned a degree in English education and a Master’s degree in secondary education. He taught at Bryant & Stratton College in Buffalo, where he also ran the bookstore. It was during this time that Father Cunningham began to think about the priesthood.
“I hadn’t given any thought to becoming a priest before I began teaching at Bryant & Stratton,” Father Cunningham recalls. “But it was in the back of my mind, and I began asking my mother if she thought I would make a good priest. She would reply, ‘Why, yes! But don’t wait too long; you’re not getting any younger.’”
Father Cunningham remembers reading a vocations issue of the Western New York Catholic newspaper in the early 1980s that featured profiles of various priests in the Diocese of Buffalo. That was a catalyst for the beginning of his journey to the priesthood. He was particularly interested in the story of Father David Gallivan and reached out to the priest to meet for coffee. After many discussions, Father Gallivan introduced him to the vocations director for the Diocese, and Father Cunningham entered the seminary in East Aurora that year.
Coming to his vocation studies later in life, Father Cunningham was one of the older seminarians at the time. But he enjoyed the studies at the seminary and found his fellow seminarians supportive. He was ordained in 1987 and said his first Mass at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in Kenmore.
His first assignment was at Queen of Heaven parish followed by an appointment to Saint Bonaventure Church, both in West Seneca. As he gained experience as a priest, Father Cunningham says his teaching background helped him in sharing the Catholic faith with parishioners. “One of the things I enjoy most as a priest is helping people to practice their faith, teaching and guiding them,” he explains. “My philosophy has always been to be kind and meet people where they are coming from.”
Father Cunningham’s first pastor appointment came when he was assigned to St. Agnes Church in Buffalo’s Lovejoy section. From there he became administrator of Holy Family parish in South Buffalo. He became pastor of St. Teresa’s parish on Seneca Street in 2009 and currently serves in that role.
“We have a wonderful and diverse congregation at St. Teresa’s,” Father Cunningham says. “The challenge – as with any parish today – is to help people find time from their busy lives to engage in their faith.”
For the young men considering the priesthood, Father Cunningham speaks from experience when he advises them to not be afraid to try it. “If you have an interest – even if you are in a career already – look into the seminary,” he counsels. “It’s okay if you decide it is not for you, but you’ll never know if you don’t try it.