Uncompromising priest held fast to tradition

By Jim Stingl of the Journal Sentinel staff (March 7, 1998)

copyright 1998 Journal Sentinel Inc., reproduced with permission.


On behalf of the Roman Catholic Faithful I would like to thank the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (P.O. Box 661, Milwaukee, WI 53201) for allowing RCF to reprint their story of Fr. Kunz’s death in RCF’s newsletter. Stephen G. Brady

Dane -- Except for the chimes sounding in the church tower every hour, time seems to stand still behind the yellow crime scene tape wrapped around St. Michael Catholic Church and its tiny attached school.

This old-fashioned congregation of 149 families that has clung to its rosary beads as a bulwark against crumbling morals and pick-and-choose religion now stands frozen like a crime suspect face down on the ground while police go through his pockets.

A Dane County sheriff's deputy sits in his car in the church driveway. "Can I help you?" he asks anyone who approaches.

You want to tell him he could help the people of this parish by explaining why someone would kill their charismatic pastor, Father Alfred Kunz. To explain why such a horrible crime would happen in a village too small for a stoplight, a crossroads that hasn't seen a murder here since a mentally unstable man shot his son in 1971.

In shock and in mourning, members of the St. Michael flock say they try to picture Kunz in heaven enjoying the reward he talked about so often. It helps to push away the picture of him lying dead on the same floor he trod for 31 years on the way to teach children about Jesus or check out why the boiler wasn't working.

"If he didn't go to heaven, I don't think anybody is going to get there," said Joan Deans, a member for 43 years who sent six children to school at St. Michael.

Details of the priest's death remain a mystery. All anyone knows for sure is that Kunz was last seen alive by a priest friend on Tuesday night and that his body was found lying in a school hallway the next morning. He had bled to death from an injury that has not been revealed.

No one has been arrested. People wonder whether the killer was a burglar confronted by Kunz or an enemy who killed to even a score.

But stories of Kunz' life, his uncompromising theology, great intellect and the increasingly tight grip he held on St. Michael can be heard again and again from the people who knew him.

Kunz, 67, was not interested in being popular. His followers say he was compassionate, but he didn't soften his interpretation of God's laws to spare someone's feelings or get them out of a jam. Sin was real, he believed, and so was hell.

"He made you very proud to be a Catholic. You knew why you were there," said parishioner Vonnie Clemens.

For 26 years, in addition to his parish work, he served on the tribunal in the Madison Diocese that reviews broken marriages and recommends which ones to annul -- who would be allowed to remarry in the church. Kunz was a hard sell, other priests say, who thought other dioceses let people off too easy.

Once he went to visit a family from the parish that was anxious to show him photographs they had taken when they saw Pope John Paul say Mass in Chicago. As Kunz paged through the photo album, he was horrified to see a communion host they had brought home as a souvenir. He ripped the host from the album, took the wafer into his mouth and asked everyone to get on their knees with him to ask God's forgiveness.

To step into St. Michael on a Sunday morning was like a trip through time, back to Catholicism before the modernization in the 1960s following the Second Vatican Council.

The 10 a.m. Mass every Sunday was in Latin. Kunz stood with his back to the congregation as he said Mass. The music came from an organ, not guitars or other instruments. To receive communion, everyone knelt at the communion railing and received the host on their tongues, never in their hands.

There was no handshake of peace among people at church like most Catholic parishes have been doing for years. And it was always altar boys, never girls.

"I've never seen a woman on the altar," said Duwayne Kurt, a construction worker and lifelong member of the parish.

"Only for cleaning," said a woman who recently switched to another nearby parish after 68 years at St. Michael.

People were hesitant to criticize Kunz so soon after his death, but some said they felt estranged from their church and their pastor, especially in the last 10 years, as more and more extremely conservative Catholics from around the state and the Midwest traveled to Dane and filled the pews to hear Kunz.

"The local people just kind of got pushed out. We didn't have much to say anymore," said the woman who left.

A farmer who also left St. Michael, the church where he was baptized, said Kunz seemed to grow distant in recent years, unwilling to share financial information or control of the church.

Kunz disbanded the parish council in the 1980s, saying that kind of input from parish representatives wasn't needed. And a house on the property that once housed nuns who taught at the school now stands empty because Kunz clashed with the sisters over control of the school.

"He told them, 'Let me know when your bags are packed,' " said a close friend of Kunz, Father Charles Fiore, who lives nearby in Lodi and is active in right-to-life, home-schooling and other conservative causes. He was with Kunz on Tuesday night when the two traveled to Monroe so Fiore could record a religious radio program.

A few years ago, Fiore was in the news himself because of claims that he encouraged a man to make false sexual abuse allegations against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. Fiore denied he had done so, but said he believed Bernardin was guilty.

Like Fiore, Kunz abhorred abortion, often preaching against it from the pulpit. Three years ago, on a rainy Saturday, he conducted a funeral for a fetus that had been taken from a trash can at a Milwaukee abortion clinic. The fetus was placed in a small casket and buried in front of the church next to a shrine of Our Lady of Fatima.

"He was forceful, but not angry," said Fiore, describing Kunz' preaching style. "I guess there were people who took offense at it. People who react that way usually do because they have a guilty conscience."

Kunz, he said, was an expert on church law who was consulted by religious leaders across the country.

Kunz was born in Dodgeville on April 15, 1930. He grew up in Fennimore and his family owned a cheese factory nearby. His father was a Swiss immigrant and his mother, a German, was born in America. He had three brothers and four sisters.

Kunz went to St. Mary's grade school in Fennimore, then left the state for 12 years of schooling at Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio. He said his first solemn Mass on June 3, 1956, at St. Mary's in Fennimore.

He was associate pastor at congregations in Waunakee, Cassville and Monroe before coming to St. Michael in Dane to serve as pastor in 1967.

The affable priest with the impish grin quickly was embraced by his parish. He formed a bowling league and joined it himself, but often seemed to have trouble getting to the bowling alley before the third frame. Kunz seemed to go by his own clock, often starting Mass 10 or 15 minutes late.

In 1974, the church steeple was hit by lightning. The engine on the fire department's pumper truck malfunctioned and the church burned to the foundation. People feared the congregation would be split between churches in Lodi and Waunakee.

"Father said, 'No way. We're going to rebuild.' And he did," Kurt said.

Kunz rarely talked about money, no more than one sermon a year. But the people of St. Michael say it's a miracle the way he kept the school going.

The school comprises kindergarten through eighth grade, 50 students in all, two grades per classroom. There are five teachers, including one from Magdalen College, a tiny Catholic school in New Hampshire where Kunz often turned to find people willing to work for a modest salary.

When needed, Kunz would find housing for the teachers and provide them with a used car he would pick out himself. Sometimes, while they were in the classrooms, he'd be outside changing the oil in their cars. He was a tinkerer who performed repairs around the church and school and his own car, a crimson Volkswagen with 150,000 miles on the odometer and tires that always seemed near flat.

"Our needs were met," and Kunz took no salary for himself, said Maureen O'Leary, the school principal the past 11 years since the nuns left.

The school children attended Mass every morning, three times a week in Latin. They began each service, on their knees, praying the rosary.

Kunz was a strong, healthy man who seemed never to run out of energy and needed little sleep.

Every year, Kunz would go deer hunting with a younger priest, Greg Galvin, and bring back venison to give to people. He also prided himself on being an excellent cook, and was a fixture over the deep fryer at the church's fish fries.

He wore vintage vestments to celebrate Mass. And a photo of Kunz that ran in newspapers last week show him in a biretta, a square tasseled cap, and a scarf-like maniple draped over his arm. The use of both has been discontinued.

Now the people at St. Michael are left to wonder whether they will ever have a priest who would wear the garments -- and all they stood for -- again.