by Moira Cullings
LEAWOOD — Bob Cunningham spent his late teenage years fighting the Japanese with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.
Now, at 91 years old, the hands that once carried a rifle on behalf of his country are utilized in a very special way for peace — by repairing rosaries.
“We need the Hail Marys, and I’m helping to get them,” he said. “That’s the thrill of it.”
A member of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood, Cunningham drives to the parish multiple times each week to pick up, repair and deliver rosaries all within a day or two — completely free of charge.
Ministry in the making
Cunningham learned to make rosaries from a woman in Naples, Florida, about 15 years ago, when he and his late wife Rosemary were there for a visit.
“That’s where it all started,” he said.
Cunningham began making rosaries and immediately received requests from people needing help with repairs.
Once he joined Curé about 12 years ago, Cunningham began to offer the service at no charge, promoting it through word of mouth and the weekly bulletin.
Jodie Stockwell, longtime RCIA director at Curé, has never ceased to be amazed by the work Cunningham puts into his ministry.
“I can remember on several occasions when I was on the phone downstairs, he’d come in and pick up the broken [rosaries] and leave,” she said. “By lunchtime, I was calling the person back to say, ‘Your rosary’s been repaired.’”
When Cunningham first began his ministry to Curé, then-pastor Msgr. Charles McGlinn was touched by Cunningham’s heart for the devotion.
“Bob’s passion arises from his special love for the Blessed Mother, and his desire to support and spread devotion to her,” said Msgr. McGlinn.
“He has touched the hearts of hundreds of people with this beautiful service he has given,” he added.
After raising six children and enjoying a successful career as an automobile dealer at Cunningham Automotive Group, Cunningham sold his business to his sons and retired in 1995.
Since then, he has been able to dedicate more time to his ministry.
His wife Rosemary died in 2010.
Cunningham later married Shirl Madden, who continues to be a support system for all he does.
“Sometimes she helps me do little things with the rosaries,” he said.
“She’s lovely. And she puts up with me,” he said with a smile.
A collection for the ages
Cunningham has offered his services to several parishes in the archdiocese and puts about 1,000 miles a month on his car traveling to pick up and deliver rosaries.
“I’ve been able to fix them all — except one,” he said.
“It’s just a challenge,” he added.
But he’s not giving up.
“You need a challenge,” he declared.
The most difficult rosaries that come his way?
“They come in from mothers that have little kids,” he said. “It’s not so hard; it just takes more time to fix them.
“But I enjoy that, because I know the moms are praying.”
Packed in containers inside a closet, Cunningham stores countless beads, crucifixes and other pieces.
He has gathered materials from broken rosaries and his own purchases over the years.
“You can’t believe the different color beads there are,” he said. “Hundreds of colors.”
If your rosary needs a specific part, said Cunningham, it’s likely he has it.
For Stockwell, what’s more surprising than the work Cunningham puts into his craft is the care that goes along with it.
“He began some years ago making rosaries for all of my RCIA participants — the catechumens and the candidates,” she said.
“When we would have the lesson on Mary, Mother of God,” she continued, “or talk about the rosary, I was able to give each one of them a rosary that had been blessed by our pastor because Bob had the foresight to make them.
“And he had a case for each one of them. It was just a lovely gift of service.”
For fellow Curé parishioner Lisa White, watching Cunningham’s ministry flourish is a gift.
“One of my favorite memories of him is when he distributed his handmade crucifixes to the senior living facility where he lives,” she said.
“My dad and stepmother also live there and told me about the crucifix they received and how impressed they are with Bob,” she added. “What a great evangelizer.
“My dad and his wife aren’t Catholic, and Bob wasn’t afraid to give them a crucifix.”
Cunningham’s ministry goes far beyond repairing rosaries.
He received a Purple Heart after being wounded on the island of Saipan during his service in World War II.
Once he mustered out of the Corps in 1946, he went on to lead a life of evangelization.
Cunningham has been involved in the Serra Club, served in the Rotary Club and continues to serve as a eucharistic minister, among other ministries.
“[Cunningham’s] evangelization of the faith goes far beyond repairing rosaries,” said Stockwell. “And he does it with such generosity of spirit.”
“I am so inspired by his love for Jesus and his desire to serve and spread [God’s] love and encouragement,” she said.
“He is such a gentleman, so kind and loving, with a peaceful spirit,” she continued. “I think of God whenever I see him.”