Msgr. Richard Huneger
Msgr. Richard Huneger

Those who have been privileged to work with Msgr. Richard Huneger often have wondered at his dedication and stamina in laboring for the Lord. It is speculated that he never sleeps, and he has been fondly referred to as the “Priestly Energizer Bunny.” For instance, for several years he has served as the regular volunteer Catholic chaplain for all four of Salem’s Department of Corrections prison facilities, celebrating Mass weekly, administering the sacraments and getting to know the Catholic men — including those on death row — which he humbly calls a “rewarding and edifying experience.”

Perhaps it is, in part, his desire to achieve and excel that motivates him and fuels his drive. For example, as a youth in 1962, he went to Akron, Ohio, for the national Soap Box Derby, having won the Salem regional. Later in college in 1968, he coached the debate teams at Mount Angel Seminary High School. They developed a great case on the issue of the U.S. military aid; both sides were invited to the state competition, and then went on to Nashville for the national competition.

Maybe Msgr. Huneger simply takes hard work for granted. From age 6 on he spent his summers picking berries and beans. In some years his parents and two sisters worked together in the fields surrounding Salem to supplement the family income. When he was older, he became the bus driver/supervisor for the pickers and later worked in a cannery. He became an active altar server in fourth grade (when Latin needed to be mastered), and was president of the servers. During his years at Mount Angel Seminary High School, he was editor of the school newspaper and organist for daily Mass.

After studying theology at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1973. His pastoral assignments often have included ministering to the incarcerated. Before the pandemic, he was visiting the Oregon State Penitentiary and found it “rewarding to get to know the men” whose participation at Mass is “heartfelt and exemplary.” Msgr. Huneger is especially touched by the “sincerity and humbleness of those who take advantage of confession before Mass.” He credits the weekly visits of lay volunteers and seminarians with sustaining the Catholic community within the prison walls. And he reflects that the visits of Archbishop Alexander Sample have a profound impact on the men in terms of “pride and hope.”

Msgr. Huneger’s dedication to his calling is unflagging, as is his dedication to learning. In his spare time he studies languages, philosophy and history. Now approaching retirement, Msgr. Huneger serves as pastor at St. Joseph in Salem, the parish in which he grew up, and every time he celebrates Mass “it brings back memories.” He reminisces that at each funeral it is possible “to see how many, many friends, good, good people, can be made in the course of a lifetime of active participation in parish life.”

The writer is project consultant for the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office of Prison Ministry. This article appeared previously in the ministry’s newsletter.