Born: 24 February 1906, Taieri, Otago, New Zealand
Entered: 04 March 1924, Loyola Greenwich, Australia (HIB)
Ordained: 12 August 1934
Professed: 10 March 1942
Died: 03 September 1959, St Patrick’s Mission, Barrow (Utqiagvik), Alaska, USA - Oregonensis Province (ORE)
Transcribed HIB to CAL : 1929; CAL to ORE
by 1928 at Eegenhoven, Leuven Belgium (BELG) studying
◆ David Strong SJ “The Australian Dictionary of Jesuit Biography 1848-2015”, 2nd Edition, Halstead Press, Ultimo NSW, Australia, 2017 - ISBN : 9781925043280
His grandfather was deported from Ireland to Australia for some act of patriotism. His secondary education was with the Christian Brothers at Dunedin, New Zealand before he Entered the Society in Australia at Loyola Greenwich, 1924.
1926-1927 He was sent to Rathfarnham Castle Dublin for a Juniorate
1927-1930 He was sent for Philosophy to Eegenhoven Belgium and Spokane Washington, USA. During his third year of Philosophy he was transcribed to the Oregon Province (ORE) having volunteered for the Alaska Mission. At Spokane he was known as a quiet and hardworking student with a fine mind, who never seemed to get tired. He was fiercely competitive at sports and the best soccer player among the scholastics.
1930-1931 He was sent to Kashunak School, Holy Cross, Alaska for Regency
1931-1934 He went to Montreal Quebec, Canada for Theology
1934-1935 He made Tertianship at Mont-Laurier Quebec, Canada
1935-1936 He began his missionary work at Nome Alaska
1936-1944 He was sent to work at Little Diomede Island Alaska. He became a US citizen 01 October 1941.
1944-1946 He was a Military Chaplain with the US Army, during which time he visited Australia and the Pacific region, which included New Caledonia, Manila, Honolulu, Guam and Japan. He even spent four months in Korea in 1946
1946-1947 After the war he returned to Little Diomede Island
1947-1950 He was sent to work with the Eskimos at King Island Alaska. Here he taught school at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as catechising, visiting the sick and sharing in village life. This included joining the local men hunting.
1950-1952 He became a Chaplain with the Air Force, spending much of his time teaching Arctic survival to servicemen.
1952-1953 He spent a year as a missionary at Kotzebue (Qikiqtaġruk) Alaska
1953 He moved further north in Alaska to Point Barrow (Nuvuk). Using this as a base, he went on long dog-sled journeys across the world’s last frontier, seeking Eskimo souls for Christ and working with white Catholics in Point Barrow (Nuvuk), construction workers, military personnel, people connected with the school, the hospital, the US Weather Bureau and the Civil Aeronautics Administration. He also ministered to the men working on the “Distant Early Warning” radar sites.
His life in Alaska was a saga of heroic deeds. he once saved a village from starving by personally conducting a hunt on the Arctic Ocean during very severe weather. His trained eye picked out the ice floe that was to be the home of scientists and airmen for eighteen months during the “International Geophysical Year” of 1957. This project was known as “Operation Ice Skate” and was completed under the guidance of Thomas Cunningham.
His “Parish” had been the 150,000 cold square miles of Alaska above the Arctic Circle. His parishioners were anyone he met. For a quarter of a century he laughed at Arctic dangers, survived pneumonia - which he caught while cruising the icy Bering Sea in a leaky sealskin boat. He leapt down an icy cliff and jumped to safety from ice cake to floating ice cake as Soviet officials sought to take him captive when his boat had been blown into Big Diomede Island (Gvozdev) during an Arctic storm. He mushed through winter blizzards that had kept even the Eskimos indoors, travelling on one missionary journey for 2,500 miles behind dogs.
His deeds in the Arctic became legendary and were told and retold wherever Eskimo or white men gathered along the Arctic coast or north of the glacier-packed Brooks Mountain range.
He learned the Eskimo language during his early Alaskan years, and spoke it with a fluency that amazed the natives. He was a scholar, who compiled an Eskimo dictionary of over 7,000 words and their English equivalents. He could look at an ice flow and tell the age of the ice, and accurately guess its depth and longevity. He knew more of the traditions, legends and anthropological lore of the Eskimo than anyone else in the north. He held a Major’s commission in the Air Force and had received a commendation-of-merit ribbon from the Secretary of the US Air Force.
He was a very cheerful person, very pro Irish and anti British, and a marvellous raconteur. He was small in stature, but very strong. He said he chose the Alaskan Mission because it was cold like his native place in New Zealand. He died in his Rectory cabin at Point Barrow (Nuvuk) from a heart attack. The US Air Force flew his body from there to Fairbanks, and he was buried there with full military honours and a 15-gun salute.
He was a remarkable Jesuit, described by a fellow missionary as “one of the most loved, versatile and dynamic missionaries ever to serve the Alaska Missions”. He was recorded in the “Congressional Records” as “a noble and gallant figure, a devoted servant of God and his fellow men”. Both “Time” and “Newsweek” magazines noted his passing.
cf “Memoirs of a Yukon Priest”Segundo Llorente SJ, Georgetown University Press, Washington DC 1990 - ISBN 10: 0878403615
◆ Irish Province News
Irish Province News 6th Year No 2 1931
Mr Tom Cunningham has already been doing excellent work in Alaska. He will be most likely prefect and principal of a school next year.
Irish Province News 8th Year No 2 1933
A great many of us remember Mr. Tom Cunningham, an Australian, who finished his juniorate at Rathfarnharn in 1927. He volunteered for the Alaskan mission, and at the end of philosophy was sent to the far north. He is now doing 2nd Year Theol. at the “Immaculate” Montreal. He sends an interesting letter :
It will be no time 'till I find myself back in Alaska for a life sentence, and the moment cannot come too quickly for me. It is true that life in Alaska is hard. You are lonely and cold, the food is of the crudest kind, the silence of the Arctic winter nearly drives you crazy, and you begin to wonder sometimes if you will ever see the sun again, or get a letter from home.
But it has its compensations. There is a sort of mysterious something about the Yukon that gets a grip on you, and makes you wish to be there rather than any place else. It must be the grace of God. I know that I wouldn't stay in Alaska one day if it were not for a supernatural motive.
Irish Province News 12th Year No 2 1937
The following letter is from Father T. Cunningham who was a Junior at Rathfarnham in the year 1926-27. Shortly afterwards he joined the California Province in the hope of being sent to the Alaska mission. He now belongs to the Oregon Province, and when his theology at the Immaculate Conception, Montreal, was finished his hopes were realized, and he was sent to Alaska, the land his heart desired. Our regret is that limited space prevents our giving the entire letter, but the parts we are enabled to give are decidedly interesting. The letter is an answer to one received from a Jesuit friend.
“When your letter arrived the spirit was low. I don't mean low in the wrong sense of the word, but that lowness that comes from a long, miserable, cold winter, with always a couple more months to go, and a lowness that is increased by had grub, hard work and loneliness.
Much to my astonishment I was assigned on my return to Alaska to Nome. (Father Cunningham had spent some time in Alaska before his theology.) Nome has a reputation of wrecking havoc in the minds and bodies of the clergy. Of my predecessors one went completely mad, one froze to death, three lasted a year and then had to leave through ill health. I have been here since September, 1935, alone, and believe me it's no picnic. I have been to confession once since then when I went fifty miles out of my way to call on my neighbor in Kotzebue 200 miles north of here.
When I saw what I was up against I drew up a schedule to be followed as closely as possible here and when travelling. The day was divided from 5 a.rn. to 10.30 p.m. between prayer, study teaching catechism and manual labor, in such a way that I didn't have time to sit down and feel sorry for myself.
Outside of Nome the work was fine. My territory stretches as far north as the Noatak River, well within the Arctic Circle, and as far west as Cape Prince of Wales, the most westerly point on the Continent. I got over the whole district twice and my procedure was always the same, study of the various changes of dialect in each village, and teaching catechism to the children in the afternoon and to the adults at night. In between times, when I had the dishes washed, dogs fed, and the wood chopped against the next morning, I would do what I could towards easing the various bodily ailments to which the Eskimo is prone. I relied as often as not on the grace of God as on my own medical knowledge. Anyhow I produced some surprising results, and didn't kill anyone.
The winter was moderate. The coldest around here was 70 below zero, but only for a day or so. There was a seven weeks spell of minus 50 during March and April. The coldest I experienced when travelling was 58 below zero. That was too cold to travel but I didn't want to spend the night in the open. I came through the winter with only feet frozen twice, and frost-bitten hands and nose every other week, nothing serious, only inconvenient. It is really hard to describe the cold and the famous north Wind which makes it much worse.
Now we are enjoying what is rightly called Little Winter or that period of two months or so between the end and beginning of the Big Winter. We had five beautiful days early this month (July), but most of the time it's a cold damp atmosphere with an occasional frost and snow flurry. It did clear up enough to see the Midnight Sun on two occasions.
I have made satisfactory progress in the language, and can preach, hear confessions, teach catechism without much difficulty, and I hope to know it as well as possible in two more years. There are no books on the subject, and most of all I know I had to find out just by asking around.
The language has one big rule turn everything possible into a verb. Thus, “I didn't eat all day” is “I dayed without eating” - “Oubluzunga herrinanga”. They have no generic words, for the six kinds of foxes, they have six different words.
The method of counting is queer but logical. They count to twenty, as that is as far as the fingers and toes go. Then they multiply and add till they reach a hundred. 67 would be 20 by 3 plus 7.
Now, my status for next year. I have been billed to found a new mission on Little Diomede Island, in the Bering Sea, near Siberia. I shall be the first priest to winter there, and, as far as I know, the only white man. I go there in September (1936), and will have no communication with the mainland from October till the following July, when the ice begins to break up. Someone has to go there as it is a good place in case we can ever work on the Eskimos in Russia. The address will be : Ignalit - Diomede Island, via Nome. Alaska.
I would take it as a favour if you gave this letter to the Editor of the Province News, as I like to think that all my old Irish friends have not completely deserted me simply because I turned Eskimo.
We haven't enough men here. We cannot do half enough. I have at least six native villages to attend to outside Nome, and a fellow can be only in one place at a time, and dogs go only an average of six miles an hour, and that's good going. I was lucky to get all around twice.
Give my regards to all my old co-juniors,
TOM CUNNINGHAM, SJ”
Irish Province News 23rd Year No 3 1948
Letter from Fr. Tom Cunningham, King Island, Alaska :
“... A plane flew over this island last week and dropped some mail - a most pleasant surprise. This mail had been accumulating at Nome since last September and it contained two 1947 copies of the Irish Province News. Though it is a long time since 1929, the names of the older members of the Province are still very fresh in the memory.
If you know of any budding missionaries who wish to come out here, tell them from me that they need only one quality above other missionary requirements, viz. the desire and the ability to learn the Eskimo language, which I am convinced is the hardest language imaginable. I don't know though - a few years ago I came across a tribe in Liberia, who were Eskimo in every respect except language. Their language was very simple and after less than a month's association with them, I could get along fairly well. If a future missionary can grasp a language, he has overcome the most difficult part of the Alaska Missions. The weather, travel, terrain, etc. can be handled easily.
If you don't mind, let me bring you up to date on my personal activities. I was on Diomede Island from 1936 to 1940, when I then went to tertianship. Back again on Diomede till 1942 when the war had upset everything. There were soldiers all over Alaska except on these remote islands. I worked with the army quite a lot as adviser on Arctic conditions and spent some time training Arctic Search and Rescue Crews on the Alaska Liberia Wing of the Ferrying Command. Thousands of planes went through Alaska to the European Front. Americans would fly them to Alaska and the Russian pilots would take over there.
In 1944 I was commissioned in the Chaplain's Corps and sent to the S. W. Pacific, being on Hawaii, Guam, Saipan, Manila and eventually Tokyo and Korea. I was released from the army and went to Lewis Washington in September, 1946 and arrived back at Nome two weeks later. I spent last winter between two Missions on the mainland and from January to June, I was on Diomede Island,
Last summer, Fr. Lafortune, the priest who built the Mission on this island died, and King Island was added to the territory which I already had. My Present Parish is composed of King Island and Diomede Island in the Baring Straits and Teller and the village of Igloo on the Mainland. The latter three are accessible during the winter, but once on the island you must stay put till the ice goes.
My plans now are to alternate between one winter here and one divided between Diomede, Teller and Igloo. The population here is 198, all Catholics. Diomede has 94 of whom 86 are Catholics. Teller has 35 Catholics out of 150 and Iglo has 48 people, all Catholics. The distances between are considerable : Teller to Igloo 50 miles, Teller to Diomede 98 miles and Teller to here 40 miles. Teller is a sort of Headquarters. There are two stores there. I built the Chapels at Diomede, Teller and Igloo. This island and its buildings, I have inherited so to speak; a fine Church, nice living quarters and the most fervent congregation I have ever come across. There are at least 25 Communions daily and over 100 on Sundays.
I have been assigned considerable territory as you see, but except for Igloo it's much the same language and I happen to be the only one who knows it. The language will be necessary for at least two more generations. Here I am the only White, so the White population always sees eye to eye in Religion, recreation, politics and is a staunch follower of De Valera.
I have a Radio and get good reception on an average of once a week, so I don't know much about the outside. The programme except for the excellent News broadcasts are poor. The only station I can hear is an Army station at Los Angeles. Even the news, the odd time I hear it, is not very reassuring.
Life here is tranquil. The island is about one mile and a half in circumference, rising abruptly out of the ice. The village is an in credibly steep rocky slope, at least a 60° incline. It is quite an art to manoeuvre around the village. The only way that I can make it when taking Holy Communion to the sick on dark mornings is to tie a rope. around one of the Church supports and hang on. The Eskimos pick out the darndest places to live.
The living is made entirely off the ice and it takes rugged characters to survive. The weather is not too severe. Our coldest day so far was 44 degrees below zero, with a wind of 45 miles per hour.
My day starts at 5 am. and goes on till 10.30 p.m. There are four Catechism classes per day for the children and one in the evening for adults. On Wednesday and Saturday, I hunt in the afternoons, as I. need to eat too. All hunting is done on moving ice and it is sometimes dangerous and always cold and miserable. I take care of my own cooking, washing and house-keeping, so I really have not time to feel sorry for myself. Still, the hardest chore for me is making altar-breads. The iron must be hot, but not too hot and not too cold, and the dough not too thick and not too thin. A sort of equation with four unknowns. All in all it's a busy and I hope, a useful life.
St. Patrick's Day is coming and I have a sermon all ready for Benediction on Wednesday night. Can't help thinking of the days at Eegenhoven when March 17th was the big day and the Belgians and the Englishmen envied us. I understand our old home was pretty well blown up. I wonder what happened to all the friends we had there.
While in Korea, I had hopes of going as far as Hong Kong but I didn't get beyond Shanghai and I was there for only one night. There was an Irish Sister from Roscommon in Seoul, Korea in charge of an Orphanage and every other American soldier was helping her with stuff for her fold. While in Tokyo I heard that Fr. M. Bodkin was chaplain on a British aircraft carrier but I just couldn't visit him.....”
Irish Province News 35th Year No 1 1960
Fr Thomas Cunningham (1906-1959)
(From the Oregon- Jesuit, October 1959)
The frozen frontier of the Alaska Mission lost its restless “Father Tom” on 3rd September, 1959, when Rev. Thomas Patrick Cunningham, S.J. died of a heart attack in his rectory cabin at Point Barrow, Alaska.
His parish had been the 150,000 cold square miles of Alaska that lie above the Arctic Circle. His parishioners were anyone he met.
For a quarter of a century Fr. Tom had laughed at Arctic dangers. He had survived pneumonia, caught while cruising the icy Bering Sea in a leaky sealskin boat. He had leaped down an icy cliff and jumped to safety from ice cake to floating ice cake, as Soviet officials sought to take him captive, when his boat had been blown in to Big Diomede Island during an Arctic storm. He had mushed safely through winter blizzards that had kept even the Eskimos indoors, travelling on one missionary journey 2,500 miles behind his dogs. His deeds in the Arctic had become legend and were told and retold wherever Eskimo or white man gathered along the Arctic coast or north of the glacier-packed Brooks mountain range. His death was as Fr. Tom would have chosen, a quiet going to eternal sleep as he began another exhausting day.
When Fr. Thomas P. Cunningham joined our philosophy classes at Mount St. Michael's, Spokane, WA., in 1929, we knew him as a quiet, hard-working student with a brilliant mind, who never seemed to get tired. He was fiercely competitive in sports and the best soccer player any of us had ever faced. He had grown up in New Zealand where, on 24th February, 1906, he had been born on a farm near Taieri. He talked little of himself, but in defending some political figure in Ireland, he once said that his grandfather had been deported by England to Australia for some act of Irish patriotism.
Fr. Cunningham travelled a roundabout route to his Alaska mission, High school was spent with the Christian Brothers at Dunedin, New Zealand. He entered the Irish Province of the Society of Jesus at Sydney, Australia, 24th March, 1924. He spent his Juniorate at Rathfarnham, Ireland, his philosophy years at Louvain, Belgium, and Mt. St. Michael's, Spokane. He taught school at Holy Cross, Alaska, 1930-31, before entering theology studies at Montreal, Canada. He was ordained 12th August, 1934, at Loyola College, Montreal, and made his tertianship at Mount Laurier, Quebec, Canada. In 1935 he began his missionary work at Nome, Alaska, and the following year went to Diomede Island for a three-year stay.
Giving a chronological account of Fr. Cunningham's work in Alaska tells so little of what he did. Except for his year out for tertianship, he was at Diomede Island from 1936-44. From 1944-46 he was chaplain with the U.S. army. After another year at Diomede Island, he spent three years as missioner to the Eskimos at King Island. From 1950-52 he was chaplain with the air-force, spending much of his time teaching Arctic survival to service-men. After a year as missionary to Kotzbue, he moved north to Point Barrow, Alaska's northernmost tip and, from there, went on long dog-sled missionary journeys across the world's last frontier, seeking Eskimo souls for Christ.
Many Acts of Heroism
Fr. Cunningham's life in Alaska was a saga of heroic deeds. He once saved a village from starving by personally conducting a hunt on the Arctic Ocean during very severe weather. His trained eye picked out the ice floe which was to be the home of scientists and airmen for 18 months during the Geophysical Year. The project, known as “Operation Ice Skate”, was completed under his guidance. He was first ashore on the ice island and last to leave when it broke up. He foretold that the ice island would break twice during their stay and guessed within a week of when each break-up would occur. No life was ever lost in any of the air-force or scientific operations which he supervised.
A Skilled Scientist
Fr. Cunningham learned the Eskimo language in his early Alaskan years and spoke it with a fluency that amazed the natives. He was a scholar who compiled an Eskimo dictionary of over 7,000 words and their English equivalents. He could look at an ice floe and tell the age of the ice and accurately guess its depth and longevity. He knew more of the traditions, legends and anthropological lore of the Eskimo than anyone else in the north. He held a Major's Commission in the Air Force Reserve and had received a commendation-of-merit from the Secretary of the U.S. Air Force.
Fr. Cunningham's body was flown by the U.S. Air Force from Point Barrow to Fairbanks and buried there on 8th September with full military honours and a fifteen-gun salute by the Air Force of Ladd Field. Bishop Francis D. Gleeson, S.J. said the Mass in the presence of twenty missionaries from all over Alaska and innumerable friends from the military, civilians and Fr. Tom's beloved Eskimos.
Erwin J. Toner, S.J.