When Msgr. Paul R. Juenker died on Feb. 8 of this year, at age 97, he was the oldest priest in the Diocese of Buffalo. According to those who knew him best, he may have also been the most beloved priest in the diocese.
"I've never known him to be angry with anybody. He was kind and gentle and compassionate. He was an easy person to talk to and to go to," said Msgr. Angelo Caligiiuri, who first met Msgr. Juenker as a teacher at the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary in the late 1940s. "He was a very entertaining teacher and a wonderful role model for us seminarians. He was so loving of priests that he genuinely hurt when a priest was hurting. You could see that pain in him physically."
"He was so kind and visited every sick priest. He also had a profound impact on generations of priests as a teacher at the minor seminary," according to Father Charles Slisz, who Msgr. Juenker referred to as his "executioner" (instead of "executor") of his will. Msgr. Juenker was known for his puns, which included referring to the College of Consultors as the "insultors." He once told a nurse that his "ball gladder" had been removed.
Msgr. W. Jerome Sullivan is one of a few brother priests who noted the elder priest's exceptional handwriting. Msgr. Sullivan now cherishes a handwritten note from Msgr. Juenker which simply reads "Put out into the deep" and is attached to a unique fishing lure. It's a biblical phrase Msgr. Juenker once used after a Priest Personnel Board meeting as way of stressing the importance of taking a chance. "He held all of life lightly. He was just there for God."
During his 50 years of active ministry to the diocese, Msgr. Juenker served at Immaculate Conception, a missionary parish in Cassadaga, and St. Brigid Parish, Buffalo, before joining the faculty at the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary, where he served from 1949-1969. He was then named pastor of Blessed Trinity, Buffalo. From 1974 to 1995, he served as pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish, Buffalo. Msgr. Sullivan notes that some of those assignments turned out to be very challenging. "He handled all of these things with such grace. He'd always have a positive way of looking at things."
He rarely travelled far from home, but his simple way of living captured the attention of the world around him. "Even here, he was the head of the house, so to speak," said Msgr. Caligiuri, who resided with Msgr. Juenker at the O'Hara Residence for retired priests. His brother priests give credit to his niece, Donna Juenker, for unselfishly providing nursing assistance to him in his final years. "She took care of him for so many years and enabled him to be here for so many years because she cared for him so lovingly," said Msgr. Caligiuri.
In his final years, Msgr. Juenker was confined to a wheelchair, but it didn't stop his drive to do his own laundry and live life as a humble servant. "He had a daily routine of washing all the washcloths the kitchen staff would use each night," said Msgr. Caligiuri. "He would go down with his wheelchair and throw them in the washer. He insisted on doing it."
"He just was overwhelmingly kind with a goodness that was always present," said Msgr. James F. Campbell. "He was the kind of person you always want around you because it was nothing but goodness that surrounded him." Msgr. Juenker held the highest designation a monsignor can hold, protonotary apostolic, an honorary prelate on whom the pope has conferred this title and its special privileges. "I think he was probably asked to be a bishop a number of times, but he refused because of his humility," said Msgr. Campbell.
"What is most outstanding is his holiness," said Msgr. Sullivan. "He was an icon of a priest who lived a simple beautiful life almost despite the fact that he was terribly talented. What came through was that lightness of spirit, holding everything as God's gift. He was a mentor before the word was popular."