Interviews collected by Katherine Long and Tom Maguire

During the April 4, 1995, press conference announcing his appointment as bishop of Syracuse, then-Msgr. James M. Moynihan recalled the letter he penned to Pope John Paul II, accepting the appointment: “I told him what a splendid diocese I knew [Syracuse] was,” he said. “I promised him that I would do my very best and I would work very hard to be the very best bishop I possibly could be for the people of the Diocese of Syracuse. And I would like to repeat that promise to all the people of the diocese. I promise I will work very hard for you.

“I know it’s not always going to be sweetness and light. I know there are some problems. I know there are some difficulties. But I also know that with the help of God, with the guidance of God’s spirit, with the help of our Blessed Mother, that we will always be able to work through all of those problems and all of those difficulties.”

His words proved prescient. Much hard work was done during his 14-year tenure as ordinary, a period during which Bishop Moynihan shepherded the local Church through times of triumph and trial. The Sun spoke about the man and his ministry with some of those who knew him well.

Respect for life

In an interview with the Sun on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 2007, Bishop Moynihan said, “There are three things that shaped my time as bishop: I’m pro-life, pro-Catholic education, and pro-vocations.”

Cindy Falise, former director of the diocesan Respect Life Office and former director of Catholic Charities, saw Bishop Moynihan as “huge supporter of my office. I met with him regularly. He really brought more emphasis on the life issues, especially the unborn. He was instrumental in helping recruit people from parishes that acted like Respect Life parish representatives. He put new emphasis on Catholic schools,” she said.

Catholic education

In January of this year, the Catholic Schools of the Diocese of Syracuse presented Bishop Moynihan with the Light the Way Award, honoring those who have served the Catholic schools with distinction.

Though Bishop Moynihan was unable to attend the annual scholarship dinner, Chancellor and Director of Communications Danielle Cummings offered remarks on his behalf.

“Bishop Moynihan had a strong allegiance to Catholic schools. He visited every school multiple times during his tenure, and his Catholic Schools Week calendar was filled with Masses, blessings, and special visits to all of our schools. Visiting with Catholic schools students was one of his highlights as bishop…. He believed that Catholic school education must always be an option for our families and is an integral way of growing and strengthening the Catholic faith,” she said.

Bishop Moynihan served, however, “at a time of great challenge for some of our schools and had to make the difficult decision to close schools due to low enrollment. I can tell you personally these were some of the most difficult decisions he ever had to make. He would work with school communities and give them time to rally and increase enrollment, but at times, these efforts did not result in the enrollment that was needed. But there’s no doubt that he was a champion for our schools and our teachers.”

Former diocesan schools superintendent Sister Mary Anne Heenan, CSJ, worked with Bishop Moynihan for a little over 9½ years when she was the superintendent of schools in the diocese.

“He had a vision for the diocese and that included strong Catholic schools,” she said.

Sister Mary Anne recalled that the bishop approved using some of the Heritage Campaign funds “to raise our teachers’ salaries and to provide the opportunity for our teachers to get further education and degrees and to help them pay for the courses that they had to take [to get their master’s degrees or their certification].”

Of the more than $42 million raised through the Heritage Campaign, $11 million created an endowment for Catholic schools, and an additional $8.5 million was distributed for teacher salary adjustments and capital and emergency funds for schools, according to Christopher (Kit) Parker, diocesan director of the Office of Stewardship and Development. The Bishop’s Education Fund, established by Bishop Moynihan, accrued $1.2 million by his retirement, including a $1 million gift from Joseph and Elaine Scuderi.

“From day one, Bishop had three priorities that he articulated anywhere he went: protect the unborn, promote vocations, and sustain Catholic education,” Christopher Mominey recalled in an email. Mominey served as principal of Rome Catholic School and diocesan deputy superintendent during Bishop Moynihan’s tenure, and later was appointed diocesan superintendent by him. “What was so brilliant about his vision is that he knew instinctively that Catholic schools were the place where kids first learned the value of the life God had given them and that Catholic schools were the place that we could best foster and promote vocations,” said Mominey, who is now Chief Operating Officer and Secretary for Education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “He supported Catholic education out of a true love for the Church as he knew it was the single most effective way of passing on the faith to our young people.”

Vocations and priests

Bishop Moynihan ordained 18 men during his time as ordinary. He made promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life a priority.

“Bishop Moynihan was very direct in his promotion of religious vocations,” Father Joseph O’Connor, diocesan director of the Office of Vocation Promotion, told the Sun in an email. “Students seeking a picture with Bishop Moynihan after Confirmation were asked if they ever thought about being a priest or a religious sister or brother, and every positive response was met with an invitation to the Bishop’s Summer Vocation picnic where they could meet seminarians, sisters, and brothers and learn more about religious vocations. There were over a hundred kids at the picnic each summer, which means over a thousand young people spent some intentional time considering a religious vocation during his time leading the diocese.”

Bishop Moynihan also made several trips to Africa and Poland to recruit priests to serve in the diocese.

“Bishop Moynihan was a pioneer for our diocese in recruiting priests from Africa,” Msgr. J. Robert Yeazel wrote in an email. “In 1995 we went to Kenya and Uganda and spent a week in each diocese recruiting and getting a feel for the cultures in Africa and how we could best make priests who may come to Syracuse feel at home. Subsequently the bishop developed a covenant with those two dioceses. His desire to make the Church of Syracuse strong and its people well served brought many priests from those countries to serve among us in Syracuse. He also pioneered in establishing an Inculturation Program in Syracuse to help the priests learn our language idioms and obtain cultural insights. Further he established regular support meetings for the priests and even established a ‘home’ for them on days off at the former convent at St. Agatha’s parish in Canastota. He was a most welcoming, hospitable and supportive presence for our friends from Africa.”

Father Andrew Baranski served as secretary to Bishop Moynihan for six years. He remembered the bishop as “always very pastoral, always approachable…. His concern for the priests was always there. He never refused them time to sit down and talk if they needed to come talk to him.”

Getting to know the bishop on a personal level allowed him to see how the bishop was “almost fatherly to the priests and that always impressed me,” Father Baranski said. “He was always open to the priests, listening [to] and guiding them.”

Abuse crisis

Bishop Moynihan shepherded the diocese as the crisis of clergy sexual abuse broke across the nation and locally.

At that time, and always, Bishop Moynihan was a man of action, Cummings said.

“He was open to counsel, and he certainly had his own opinions, but he was the one who said we need to communicate to our people immediately. Back then, that was courageous — to come out with a letter and have it read from every pulpit that said, ‘We’re not immune to this, and if you’ve been harmed please come forward.’”

The diocese implemented the U.S. Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and put prevention training and victim assistance staff into place; Bishop Moynihan met with victims and celebrated healing services throughout the diocese, Cummings noted.

“He did try his best, I think, to respond in the best way he knew how…. His gift was his ability to listen. No one has the perfect answer to this issue, but I would say his number one achievement was to listen to those around him,” including victims, law enforcement, the people in the pews, the community, and priests, she said.

Pastoral planning

The work of reconfiguration took place in earnest under Bishop Moynihan. His 2001 pastoral letter, “Equipping the Saints for the Work of Ministry,” outlined the “institutional and structural challenges” facing the diocese, and in 2007, he announced parish reconfiguration plans that will ultimately lead to the closure of some 40 churches and the merging of others.

“As time passes we will all come to realize the full impact of Bishop Moynihan’s time as our diocesan bishop,” Msgr. James Lang, Vicar for Priests, wrote in an email. “His warmth, positive spirit, enjoyment of his ministry and outreach are all well known. There is more. His years as our bishop saw a perfect storm of issues. He was a pro-Catholic-school bishop who needed to realign the system. He was a pro-parish-life enthusiast who had the unenviable task of reconfiguring and realigning parishes. He was a financial and fundraising expert who needed every ounce of that expertise to keep resources available for ministry. He was a friend to all who was called upon to use every ounce of his strength to respond to the abuse crisis in the manner required of the situation. Through it all he remained committed to his role as bishop and to living his motto, ‘support one another in love.’”

Promoting women in the Church

Bishop Moynihan brought in and promoted women to leadership positions in the diocese, Cummings noted. “There were significant roles in the diocese that were held by women,” she said, including the directors of ministries and offices. Cummings herself was named assistant chancellor by the bishop. “I’ve always known, from the time I met him, that he found a certain strength in women,” something she said came from seeing his mother successfully run a lumber mill.

“He was surrounded by strength,” she said, with a strong mother and a father who recognized her strength, and who instilled that in their children. “That’s who he was,” she said.

Connie Berry served as a writer for and the editor of the Catholic Sun under Bishop Moynihan. “I was grateful that Bishop Moynihan trusted me in my role as editor at the Sun,” she said. “He rarely expressed his displeasure at the way the newspaper was going, at least not to me. Sometimes the perception was otherwise. He did offer suggestions at times, including recommending Father Ronald Rohlheiser as a columnist. I think that he held women in the workplace in high regard, and he always attributed that to his mother and her example.”

Friends and family

James E. Moynihan, Bishop Moynihan’s cousin and also his godson, said his cousin was a “great inspiration to me my entire life. … Father Jim’s been with me all the way through and came to me in my darkest hour, which was when my father died in 1971, and basically guided me through those tough times.”

Julie Merola coordinated Bishop Moynihan’s care for the last year of his life. The two spent a lot of time together, she said, talking about sports (“We don’t agree on football but we’re both Yankees fans”) and going on outings, such as their visit to the Syracuse Italian festival this past fall. He had an enormous sense of humor, she said, and was very kind.

“Getting to know him personally, he was what you would expect a bishop to be,” Merola said. “He was what he did for a living, and very accepting and very gracious.… Behind closed doors he was the awesome human being he looks like in his vestments.”

Harvey and Doreen Simmons, of Skaneateles, attended Bishop Moynihan’s Vigil Service. Retired now, Harvey was the lawyer for Crucible Industries. Doreen is the attorney for the diocese. The couple visited the bishop many times.

“He had … the gift of good cheer,” Harvey said, “if there’s such a gift in the Bible. … And he would laugh and be a good guy, but you always knew he was a holy man.”

He added: “When I would visit him at the nursing home, he was suffering terribly, and I would leave and I’d come home and say to my wife, ‘He cheered me up.’ He was an amazing human being! I never saw the man be despondent!”

“He was a grand gentleman, a wonderful listener,” Doreen said.

The bishop also loved his golf. “When you went to visit him in the rectory, he would have the golf clubs behind the door,” Doreen said.

Bishop Moynihan lived his motto throughout his ministry, said Parker, the director of the diocesan Office of Stewardship and Development. Later in life, even when he was ill and people were caring for him, the bishop continued to care for others, he said.

“Wherever he went,” said Parker’s wife, Debra Sochan, former chief financial officer of the diocese, “he was kind to the person at the front desk, all the way up to the doctor. People would say, ‘Oh, I just love him, he’s so kind.’ He was always making people feel good about themselves by being polite, and considerate, and thankful.”

Mark Klenz, business advertising coordinator for the Sun, knew Bishop Moynihan both professionally and personally. He continued to visit the bishop after he retired.

“I never heard him say anything negative about anyone,” Klenz said. “He fondly talked of his dear friends, Msgrs. Michael Minehan and Joseph Champlin. The last thing he ever told me was ‘You’re an extraordinarily good man.’ That is the most special thing anyone has ever said to me. I will never forget his kind words. Just before I left his room, I told him that I loved him and I gave him a kiss. He replied, ‘I love you, too.’ I touched his heart with both of our hands.”

Do you have a reflection on Bishop Moynihan’s ministry to share? Send it to klong@thecatholicsun.com.