Catholic Sentinel notice of Father Cunniff's ordination in 1953.
Catholic Sentinel notice of Father Cunniff's ordination in 1953.
BEAVERTON — The oldest Catholic priest in Oregon died early Sept. 28. Father Vincent Cunniff was 102.

The funeral is set for Monday, Oct. 10, 11 a.m. at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Northwest Portland. 

Father Cunniff, a decorated World War II bombardier and one of the most beloved pastors in the Archdiocese of Portland, died at Maryville, a community sponsored by the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.

“He was an incredible human being, a humble man,” said Father Ray Carey, who as a deacon in the late 1960s was assigned to serve under Father Cunniff. The two priests kept up a lifelong friendship, speaking every couple of weeks.

“Father Cunniff was one of the kindest men I ever knew in my life,” Father Carey said. “He was gracious to people and he was a hard working pastor. And he was a holy man as well.”

The day before Father Cunniff died, he got a visit from retired Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner, also a longtime friend. The bishop gave the priest an apostolic blessing and said, “Father Vince, we all love you so much. It’s OK if you want to go home. God is waiting for you.” Bishop Steiner said Father Cunniff’s legacy will be how he maintained a deep spiritual life to his last moments of breath.

“He was always praying and grateful and recognizing other people,” Bishop Steiner said.

Vincent Louis Cunniff was born in Marshfield, Oregon on July 12, 1920, the son of James Cunniff and Mary Columbo. He first appeared in the Catholic Sentinel in the context of Catholic education. He was listed in the 1929 cast list for a musical number called “My Grandpa,” performed for parents at St. Monica School in Marshfield, later Coos Bay.

What’s not in the article are the trials the Cunniff household was going through. The father had just died, and the stock market crash had wiped out savings.

The mother moved the little family to Portland, where Catholic school became the center of life. Leaders of Cathedral School helped young Vincent enroll. He was a hard worker and an altar server. He went on to St. Stephen High School, again with aid. All along, priests and nuns inspired him. He attended a retreat at Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary in 1938.

At the same time, he had a sense that he needed to support himself. He landed a job on the crews digging tunnels for Portland’s Sunset Highway. He knew education would be his best investment, and he took his saved paychecks and headed to Oregon State College in Corvallis. He planned to become an engineer.

In the winter of 1941, he attended Mass and when he arrived back on campus, his housemates were abuzz. Japanese planes had bombed Pearl Harbor. He and his pals, he said, felt like hornets in a nest that had been stirred up. A member of the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps, Vince Cunniff decided to do his part.

By 1943 he was in the Army Air Force flying missions over Europe. It was his job to drop bombs in the right place. Glad to hit military targets, he prayed the loads would not go astray and hurt the innocent.

On one mission, the bomber took heavy German fire. In the jolting, he thought his chest had bumped his viewing scope. But when the crisis passed, he noticed a hot chunk of metal lodged in his flak vest, just inches from tearing into his heart. He has kept the shell fragment and has always wondered why he survived while other young men died.

He made a promise during battle: “If I flew and lived I would do what I could to become a priest.”

When the war ended, he entered seminary for the Archdiocese of Portland, heading to St. Thomas Seminary in Denver. He worried about flunking out, since he had studied math and science, not Greek, Latin or theology. But he did fine in academics and learned the priesthood is about the heart, not just the mind.

“The good Lord didn’t invite just brilliant men, he asked fishermen,” Father Cunniff said. “The point is, they answered the call.”

In 1953, Archbishop Edward Howard ordained him and several other war veterans at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.

Father Cunniff served as assistant pastor at four parishes — Sacred Heart in Medford 1953-1954, St. Joseph in Salem 1954-1960, Immaculate Conception in Stayton 1960-1964, and St. Peter in Portland 1964-1966. He served as pastor of three parishes — St. Michael in Oakridge and St. Henry in Dexter 1966-1967, St. Peter in Eugene 1967-1980, and Our Lady of the Dunes in Florence 1981-1996.

In Salem, he trained altar servers and coached the school basketball team, even though he had to learn about the game first. But learning has always been his passion.

Wherever he went, schools recognized him as a supporter. In 1958, Salem’s Sacred Heart Academy invited him to hand out diplomas at graduation. In 1965, he presided at baccalaureate for the Serra High School graduation. In 1980, he celebrated the baccalaureate Mass for Marist High in Eugene.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, his name appears scores of times as officiant for weddings, a sign that former students remembered him fondly.

A lifelong advocate of learning, he was named to the archdiocese’s priest senate in 1967 and led the committee that oversaw continuing education for priests. As for himself, parishioners helped him go on a study tour of Israel, Rome and Geneva and attend a clergy institute for four months at the University of Notre Dame.

“It’s impossible to conceive of education stopping at any particular point, and this is even more true today with the changes in the culture," Father Cunniff told the Sentinel in 1981. “Priests must continue their education or else they impede their own vocation.”

He was a can-do pastor. On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1995, when he was 75 and pastor in the coastal town of Florence, he braved the gale to nail on shingles that had blown off the church.

Self-sacrifice amid stormy times was a pattern in Father Cunniff’s life to its end. Amid the pandemic in 2020, for his 100th birthday, he donated $100,000 so more children could receive a Catholic education. “I went to Catholic school and it was good for me,” Father Cunniff told the Sentinel in 2020. “Our family was pretty poor, I’ll tell you. I want today’s children to have a chance like I did.”

He always encouraged vocations. On a return visit to preside at St. Peter Parish in Eugene in 1996, he urged young men to consider the path.

“I can't imagine going through life any other way,” he told the congregation, his blue eyes glinting with emotion.

Father Cunniff worked long after retirement age, living for more than 20 years at St. John Vianney residence in Beaverton.

In retirement, Father Cunniff continued helping at parish after parish. He has long been beloved among the laity.

In 1992, even though he’d asked Florence parishioners not to do anything special, they placed an ad in the local newspaper congratulating him on his 39th ordination anniversary.

“We’ve got a tremendous pastor,” Trev Trevisan of Florence said in 1993. “People from all over the country tell us how lucky we are.”

“He makes you feel like you belong, from day one,” Ed Walsh added.

It helps that Father Cunniff has a sense of humor. In 1994, he thanked members of the parish in Florence for “helping me celebrate my 39th birthday for the 35th time.”

In 1996, Our Lady of the Dunes held a whopper of a farewell Mass, suiting up all the altar servers, combining all the choirs, singing Father Cunniff’s favorite music and holding a potluck to beat all potlucks. The men’s group later fired up the grill and cooked a picnic to honor Father Cunniff. He received gifts and heard many affectionate speeches.

“Father Cunniff is a kind, holy, gentle, humble man,” Eugene Catholic Bill Kunkle said that year. “He is easy to know and hard to forget. His presence is felt at the parish as a priest — and as a member of the family.”

In July, as he turned 102, Father Cunniff was focused on others, as usual. He concelebrated a Mass with Bishop Steiner and uttered a prayer at intention time: “I ask almighty God to bless all those I have been given the grace of serving.”

Sister Josephine Pelster, pastoral care leader at Maryville and a Sister of St. Mary of Oregon, prayed in thanksgiving for what she called Father Cunniff’s “deep desire to evangelize all he encounters.”