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Spiritan Fr. Thomas Tunney dies at 85

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Spiritan Father Thomas P. Tunney, a longtime missionary in Africa who served in his retirement as parochial vicar at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington, died Oct. 14 at ManorCare in Whitehall, Pa. He was 85.

Father Tunney was born Dec. 12, 1934, in Ambridge, Pa., into “a very Irish-Catholic family,” he told the Catholic Herald in 2010. Growing up the youngest of four children, he listened to stories about an uncle who as a Spiritan missionary in Sierra Leone had died of blackwater fever, a complication of malaria.

“He died as a young man before I was born, but he was kind of my hero. I thought, ‘I’m going to go and be like him,’ ” Father Tunney told the Catholic Herald.

He entered the junior seminary in Bensalem, Pa., when he was a freshman in high school. He enrolled in the Spiritan junior seminary in Cornwells Heights, Pa., before attending the Spiritan novitiate in Ridgefield and Spiritan seminary in Norwalk, both in Connecticut. He was ordained a member of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost (now Congregation of the Holy Spirit) Sept. 21, 1960, in Norwalk.

Following ordination, Father Tunney spent 35 years as a missionary in Africa. Assigned to Tanzania, he evangelized to remote communities that had no previous knowledge of Christianity, and helped start clinics, schools and a hospital. When a new diocese was established in the region, Father Tunney was asked to create a junior seminary, and he later led local recruitment and formation efforts.

During his time in Tanzania, Father Tunney learned Swahili and hunted on the plains to help provide food at a school for 300 boys “way out in the middle of no place,” he said.

“Food had to be hauled in from 120 miles away and there was no refrigeration, so the only meat available was that on the plains,” he said. His final service for the church in Africa was as seminary rector in Nairobi, Kenya.

Father Tunney returned to the United States in 1996 and served as director of the Spiritan Foundation in Wheaton, Md. (1996-99), and as a member of the provincial council of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (1997-2000). In 1999, he was appointed pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist Church in the Harlem section of New York City, where he served for 10 years.

Father Tunney was named parochial vicar of Our Lady, Queen of Peace in 2009, where he enjoyed an active role in parish life, including teaching Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes, celebrating the Mass and making sick calls. He obtained retirement status in 2015 and remained in residence there until 2018, when he joined the retirement community at Libermann Hall in Bethel Park, Pa. 

“Father Tunney was an exemplary Spiritan priest with a true missionary zeal who radiated the joy of the Gospel," said Spiritan Father Jeffrey Duaime, provincial for the Spiritans' U.S. province. "All who knew him were blessed by his kind and gentle spirit, and he will be greatly missed.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, funeral arrangements will be limited to close family. The funeral Mass will be livestreamed on the U.S. Spiritans Facebook page Oct. 22 at 10:30 a.m. Burial will be in the family plot at Sewickley Cemetery in Sewickley, Pa.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020