National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 16, 2004

The good shepherd of Saginaw remembered

Saginaw, Mich.

He was remembered as a good shepherd to the people of Saginaw diocese, a comforter of priests and a challenge to fellow bishops. These themes reverberated throughout the April 1 funeral Mass for Saginaw Bishop Kenneth E. Untener, who died March 27, just six weeks after announcing that he was suffering from leukemia.

Some 1,800 people more than filled St. Stephen Catholic Church and an adjoining gymnasium for a Mass of Christian burial that evoked tears and laughter, audible “amens” and a standing ovation.

In the homily for his long-time friend, retired Arch-bishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco said Untener was one of the most distinguished of bishops: “Intel-ligent, articulate, immensely gifted, he spoke the language of the heart and our heart spoke back.”

Untener’s simple life was “a true fulfillment of the [Second Vatican] Council’s call for bishops to recognize the signs of the times and respond to the apostolic ideal of the Gospel,” Quinn said.

Cardinal Adam Maida, the archbishop of Detroit, called Untener “a well-rounded, wholesome, humorous and insightful man who was always giving a challenge.

“Whether at a board meeting of the Michigan Catholic Conference or when sharing a round of golf, he always was able to cut right to the heart of things,” Maida said.

Untener, 66, had been bishop to the 140,000 Catholics of Saginaw diocese for nearly 24 years.

At the beginning of the Mass, Fr. Thomas E. Sutton, temporary administrator, said that Untener “served us with tireless energy while living out of his office and car, especially the trunk of his car. If it wasn’t in the trunk, it really wasn’t essential.”

Untener sold the bishop’s residence shortly after arriving in Saginaw in November 1980. From then on, he would stay in the rectories of the 69 parishes in his 11-county diocese.

Sutton said that Untener “treasured the scriptures and his little books.” The bishop wrote small books containing six-minute reflections for the days of the liturgical seasons and on stewardship. More than 2.5 million copies of the books in English and Spanish were sold this year alone.

“Bishop Untener worked hard, played hard,” Sutton said. He told how Untener once fended off an attack of squirt guns with a garden hose he had hooked to a sink in a utility closet.

Commenting on Untener’s retreats and workshops for clergy, Quinn said in his homily that “the personal investment” Untener made in priests gave “many priests a reason not to lose hope in difficult times.”

The archbishop concluded his homily by reading from a letter he had written to Untener immediately after Quinn received news of Untener’s fatal illness: “What I write in this letter is long overdue and should have been said long ago. … You have given all us bishops a striking, powerful but gentle challenge to live the Gospel in a clear way. I have seen how you have been criticized and misrepresented, and how, following the Gospel injunction, you have not reacted with rancor or bitterness. … You have a depth and wisdom which has been a valuable contribution to the church.”

Following the song of farewell, the audience joined in the Saginaw Blessing. Untener was buried in the priests’ section at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Saginaw.

Two prayer services were also held for Untener at St. Stephen’s before the funeral, an evening prayer on March 30, presided over by Daughters of Charity Sr. Honora Remes, the pastoral administrator at St. John the Baptist Church in Carrollton, Mich., and a vigil service March 31, with Fr. Jeff Donner, pastor at St. Mary University Parish in Mount Pleasant, presiding. About 500 people also attended a March 29 ecumenical memorial service at Victorious Believers Ministries in Saginaw.

Steve Sirianni is editor of the Saginaw edition of The Catholic Weekly. He lives in Bay City and is a retired copy editor from The Bay City Times.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 2004

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