Priest who advocated for African-Americans enters eternal rest

Father Joseph Gunning, 1913-2008

Gunning,_Fr_Joseph_for_webThe Rev. Joseph H. Gunning, 94, a Divine Word Missionary and a champion for social justice, died Wednesday, April 30, 2008, in Techny, Ill.

The fourth of Joseph and Alice Mary (nee Smith) Gunning’s ten children, the future Father Gunning grew up in Saugus, Mass., and attended Sacred Heart Parish in Lynn, Mass. As a youth, he studied at public schools in Lynn.

Before becoming a priest, Father Gunning worked in a factory for five years. A meeting with Father Hugo Aubrey, a Divine Word Missionary, changed his life. In the 1930s, when many young men entered the Divine Word seminary in their teens, Father Aubrey appealed to older men to consider the priesthood.

On Oct. 1, 1936, Father Gunning became the first man to respond to Father Aubrey’s call and entered St. Michael’s minor seminary in Conesus, NY. In June 1942 at Techny, he professed his religious vows as a member of the Society of the Divine Word.

In 1947 at age 34, he was ordained by Most Rev. William O’Brien, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, at St. Mary’s Seminary in Techny. Following ordination, Father Gunning returned to the East Coast and served as vocation director and prefect of students at Divine Word seminaries: first in Conesus, N.Y., and later in Miramar, Mass., and Bordentown, N.J.

From 1963 until 1972, he served as pastor at St. Peter Claver, an African American parish. During that time, he helped to abate the 1970 race riots in Asbury Park, N.J.; established Operation Improve, a $100,000 remedial reading program that increased children’s awareness of religion and culture; and overcame many obstacles to restore the church after a 1972 fire.

Father Gunning is survived by two brothers, Vincent and George, and a sister, Grace. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations for the care of retired missionaries may be sent to The Rector, Divine Word Residence, 1901 Waukegan Road, P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.

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