Msgr. Ralph Kuehner
Msgr. Ralph Kuehner

Msgr. Ralph Kuehner – a soft-spoken Scriptures teacher who became a dynamic force for social justice in the Washington area – was remembered at his Oct. 16 Mass of Christian Burial as a prophet in his own time whose life should inspire others to speak out and work for justice in their community and world. The priest died Oct. 12 at the age of 93 at Sacred Heart Home in Hyattsville.

For his Funeral Mass, Msgr. Kuehner came home to St. Francis of Assisi Church in Derwood, where beginning in 1990, he had served as a senior priest for 25 years, celebrating the sacraments and writing a Scriptures column in the weekly parish bulletin. Before the Mass, his body lay in state before the altar, and the funeral drew a large crowd of people whom he had befriended and served as a parish priest and social activist.

In the Washington area, he was well-known for helping to found SOME, the So Others Might Eat soup kitchen that now provides comprehensive services to the poor; and he was the founding father of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Victory Housing program. He also worked with other religious leaders in founding the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, which now includes 11 different religious communities that dialogue and work together to promote peace and serve those in need.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the main celebrant at the Mass, offered thanks to God for Msgr. Kuehner’s “ministry, service, life as a priest, and for all he accomplished.”

The concelebrants at the Mass included Washington Auxiliary Bishops Barry Knestout and Mario Dorsonville, along with 20 other priests who serve in the archdiocese.

Father Michael Bryant, the homilist at Msgr. Kuehner’s Mass, had served as the chaplain at the D.C. Jail for 25 years with the priest’s help and encouragement, and also worked with him to found the Welcome Home reentry program now operated by Catholic Charities, in which volunteers from area parishes help former inmates build new lives in society.

“Ralph’s focus was always on the ‘least among us’ in the community… Ralph taught us to help those often left on the side of the road, those seen as castaways or throwaways in society,” said Father Bryant.

Msgr. Kuehner, a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, was ordained to the priesthood in 1950, and served as a Scriptures teacher for seminarians at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, for 13 years, before coming to Washington in 1967 and becoming a priest of the archdiocese.

Over the years, he served as pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Washington and at St. Ambrose Parish in Cheverly, and in the 1970s and again  in the 1990s, he directed the archdiocese’s social   concerns efforts.

 “Scripture taught me that you should be out there helping people,” he once said in an interview with the Catholic Standard.

In 1979, Msgr. Kuehner worked with parishioners to found Victory Housing, an agency of the Archdiocese of Washington that provides affordable housing for low- and moderate-income senior citizens and families. Victory Housing now operates six assisted living residences for the frail elderly, 20 apartment communities for independent seniors, and four apartment communities for low- and moderate-income families. Those properties throughout Washington and  surrounding Maryland have a total of 2,175 units.

Msgr. Kuehner in 1970 cofounded SOME (So Others Might Eat), working with other religious and community leaders. From its humble beginnings as a soup kitchen in a church basement, SOME remains an interfaith and community-based organization serving the city’s poor, but now in addition to providing breakfasts and lunches 365 days a year, it also offers a range of comprehensive services including housing, employment, addiction         recovery programs, and medical and dental clinics.

SOME began as an effort to feed and help the city’s poor, the priest recently noted. “We started in ‘70 and haven’t missed a day since.”

He also helped found Rosaria Communities, which develops housing for people with developmental disabilities.

The veteran priest, who was skilled at building partnerships and community support for projects serving those in need, once said, “My best quality is perseverance. I never give up.”

At the Funeral Mass, Father Bryant said Msgr. Kuehner was a prophet who sought justice for the poor “in season and out of season.”

“We all have a responsibility to be prophetic,” he added, noting that the elderly priest in recent months was very concerned about government policies regarding immigrants and health care access for the poor, and about worsening race relations in the country.

“He would want us to pick up the baton of righteousness and face those issues,” Father Bryant said.

After Communion, Cardinal Wuerl praised Msgr. Kuehner as a founder of many programs geared toward caring for others, as a priest who shared Christ’s love, mercy and justice through the Eucharist and other sacraments and by his work to build God’s kingdom in today’s world.

In August, the office staff of Victory Housing held the agency’s first annual Kuehner Day of Service, to honor their founding father. They served food to the poor at SOME, then visited the priest at the Sacred Heart Home, thanking him for his example and for the opportunity to continue the work he started.

In an interview after the Funeral Mass, Father John Adams – the president of SOME – said Msgr. Kuehner was a man who loved Scriptures and loved the poor, demonstrating “they go together completely.”

He said Msgr. Kuehner was a very close friend, and “a big inspiration to me, and a great example of what a priest should be. We have to be a servant Church, and a servant people.”

Msgr. Kuehner who titled his 2013 autobiography, Why a Servant Church?, often pointed out that, “Christ said, ‘I’ve come not to be served, but to serve.’”