Lives Lost to Covid-19: Fr Tom Cunningham – a good listener who had the mind of an engineer

Tyrone priest spent more than a decade in Nigeria after he was ordained in 1955

Fr Tom Cunningham


Fr Tom Cunningham was one of 11 Spiritan priests who died in January 2021, most of them as a result of Covid-19.

His brother Fr Colum Cunningham, also a Spiritan priest, died with the virus last April. In December his sister Sr Breid (Maura Cunningham) died at the age of 99 in Kenya where she was a missionary nun for 73 years.

Fr Tom, as he was known, was born to Isabella (née O'Neill) and Patrick Cunningham of Strathroy, Omagh, Co Tyrone, on May 12th, 1929.

It was a religious family of 12 siblings, 11 who lived to adulthood; four became priests and one a nun. “Now to say you were a religious family is a no-no, it is unfashionable, but they [his five siblings who became clergy] did fantastic work. They considered themselves to be the lucky ones because they had a vocation,” said Fr Tom’s brother Eamonn.

Having attended CBS Omagh for three years, he moved to Blackrock College in 1945. After his Leaving Certificate in 1947, he entered the then Holy Ghost Novitiate in Kilshane, and was professed the following year.

Ordained in 1955, Fr Tom was appointed to Nigeria. He spent more than a decade in Aba and Osu parishes. During the Biafran civil war, he was part of Caritas International's team in Säo Tomé that sustained an essential airlift of food and medicine to the starving population of then Biafra. Two of his brothers were in Biafra at the same time.

Gripped by war

He spent the next six years in Chiulo, Angola. Pastorally minded, he was a parish priest with many out-stations in the vast desert area. He did hospital construction for the MMM Sisters, maintaining generators for X-ray machines, operating theatre and post-natal incubation.

He spent two years in Brisbane as a priest and then he moved to Lese Parish in Papua New Guinea, ministering there in a pastoral role for a decade.

After a sabbatical, he was appointed to New Barnet parish (Diocese of Westminster) in 1990. Eschewing an easy life closer to home, he moved back to southern Angola, still gripped by war. This time he assisted a younger group of Irish Spiritans based in Huíla, near Lubango. Technically gifted and skilled in agriculture and construction, he soon had water, light, transport and farm-irrigation running.

In 1998, more than 40 years after he had first gone on overseas mission, he returned to Ireland. He was maintenance manager in Kimmage until September 2003. He served in Ardbraccan (October 2003 - 2006) and then in St Patrick's Academy in Islandeady, Castlebar, Co Mayo. By now in his early 80s, he joined the Rockwell Community in April 2010.

Eamonn Cunningham says his brother was "quiet and attentive" and a good listener, who was physically active into his 80s, chopping wood in Rockwell and sending it to St Vincent de Paul in Dublin. He had the mind of an engineer and could turn his hand to anything, he says.

“He was never idle and healthy up to the very end, but Covid-19 took him very quickly,” Eamonn says.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times