HUNTSVILLE — On the 22nd anniversary of Saint Florence Mission, the congregation welcomed a new administrator and bid goodbye to Father Charles Cummins, who had ministered there for 20 years.
"I hope that I’ve helped you along the way and I hope that maybe we’ve gotten closer to God, all of us, in that time," said Fr. Cummins during his homily on Sept. 15.
Fr. Cummins will continue to serve as chaplain of the Weber State Newman Center, but as he reached the priest’s retirement age of 75 this year, he is finding relief at the thought of celebrating only three weekend Masses, rather than six, he said.
The new administrator for St. Florence Mission is Jesuit Father Richard Hunt, from the New York Province.
"They tell me this is a retirement opportunity," said Fr. Hunt, 76, who last year celebrated his 50th anniversary as a Jesuit and his 40th anniversary as a priest.
During the Mass, he acknowledged that "it’s almost impossible to replace someone who has been in a parish as long as Fr. Cummins," but added, "I just hope I can be of service to you."
Fr. Hunt’s call to priesthood came later for him than for many of his peers, he said. He grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and attended the Jesuit-run Le Moyne College, then Syracuse University. With a master’s degree in political science, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he planned to become a lawyer.
His landlady held frequent fundraising parties, "so I met all kinds of congressmen, senators, oil tycoons, orchestra conductors, and on and on and on," Fr. Hunt said. "I got to know the life of Washington quite up close and personal."
That close contact was disillusioning, he said, and at the same time he realized that he might have a priestly vocation. He explored the idea of becoming a Trappist monk but ultimately decided that he was more comfortable with the Jesuit spirituality.
Before entering the seminary in Lake Champlain at Bellarmine College, however, he first went to Boston to study Latin. He also attended seminary at Shrub Oak in Rochester, and the theology seminary at Woodstock College.
While a seminarian he taught high school. During his summers he obtained grants from various universities to study in different parts of the world; he also was a Fulbright Scholar in India.
As his career progressed, he returned to the classroom again and again, earning degrees in urban planning and Third World politics, comparative religion, and counseling, among others.
"Part of my life is very much in academe," Fr. Hunt said. "I graduated from the 33rd grade."
He not only studied but worked in higher education: He was director of Credo, a sabbatical program for religious, at Gonzaga University; he also worked in the counseling center at Canisius College in Buffalo and was director of campus ministry at Rochester Institute of Technology.
However, he also has spent a large portion of time outside ivy walls.
"My first apostolate was working with the unchurched in Boston and New York," he said, recalling that ministry as a high point of his life. "They were a delight to work with. It was clear that God was working among them."
Other positions included a short stint as a priest in a Zen center, work with artists in the Berkshire Mountains, and as a counselor at a family center as well as in private practice.
Last year, he took a sabbatical at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., to study theology. Then, "I was looking for a job and my provincial said, ‘Why don’t you do this?’" in Huntsville, he said.
Having arrived little more than a week ago, Fr. Hunt said he hasn’t made any plans for the mission. "I want to listen to what’s going on," he said. "It’s important just to find out what the needs are, who is here, that kind of thing."
Fr. Cummins has many memories of the mission, including meeting Olympians like Darren Rahlves during the 2002 Winter Olympics.
"St. Florence is a wonderful community," he said. "Many of those people come from great distances across the valley, and not to just come to church, but they serve in different capacities. And I’m very grateful to the monastery for the monks who were always glad to come over and help."
Fr. Cummins was a guiding force for the community, said Val Warren, a St. Florence parishioner. "I’ll appreciate him forever for bringing me to the Church. Whenever you talk to him one on one you feel like you’re the only person in the world, and you feel like your problems are the only ones that matter."
Amy Peters, another parishioner, agreed. "He is just a really genuine, kind, calm influence on the whole community. I got a little teary when he said goodbye because he also married my husband and me."