by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Father Donald R. Cullen was a “building” priest, but not in the way that term is usually understood. His gifts were directed primarily toward people, not infrastructure.
“Father Don Cullen loved coming in and building up people and parishes,” said Father Richard Storey, pastor of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood and a good friend.
Father Storey recalled, “He said, ‘I never built a building, but I sure repaired a heck of a lot of buildings and brought them up to code. And I paid off a lot of debt.’”
Father Cullen, 80, died on Nov. 27 at Kansas City Hospice House in Kansas City, Missouri. He had been a pastor and associate pastor at nine parishes during his 52 years of priestly ministry. He died due to complications from several health conditions.
Father Cullen was the only son of Nell A. (Kirchner) and Charles Cullen, born on May 28, 1943, in Kansas City, Missouri. He attended Blessed Sacrament Grade School in Kansas City, Missouri, and graduated in 1960 from De La Salle Military Academy in Kansas City, Missouri.
He was considered at that time a “late vocation” because after he graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1965, he discerned a vocation to the priesthood. He attended St. Thomas Seminary in Denver from 1965-71. While in Denver, he was ordained a deacon and served at the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Student Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
He was ordained a priest on June 3, 1971, by Archbishop Ignatius J. Strecker at his home parish of Queen of the Holy Rosary in Overland Park, also his last priestly assignment — a fitting arc of his priesthood, he once remarked.
“He was definitely a people person,” said Father Storey. “Father Cullen was, by far, one of the most social, most energetic, most enthusiastic, most charming of gentlemen.”
But there was never any question of who was in charge.
“His common line was that the church is not a democracy,” said Father Storey. “He was very firm in this. His ‘yes’ was ‘yes,’ and his ‘no’ was ‘no.’ He treated everyone equally, but he was in charge.”
By no means, however, was he a tyrant. Father Cullen would use humor, persuasiveness and his Irish charm to lead during a very tumultuous time in the church following the Second Vatican Council.
“He was totally, ‘You go with the flow — with where the good Lord leads you,’” said Father Storey. “As he’d go into parishes, he’d listen carefully, listen often and see where we’re heading. That’s probably how he made it through the ’70s. He knew where he was going, and he had a way of you jumping on and following.”
He was very proud of “doing just the right thing,” meaning helping someone even if they didn’t like him, and advised, “Don’t ever take anything personal, even if it was intended,” said Father Storey.
With his charm, his laughter, his humor, his storytelling, his love of the church and of people, Father Cullen had a way of bringing people back — to the confessional, to Mass and even into the church.
Patty Kincaid, a member of St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park, witnessed it firsthand.
She and her husband Don, who was not a Catholic, became good friends with Father Cullen. Usually at Mass, Patty would receive Communion and Don, right behind her, would cross his arms and receive a blessing.
During April nine years ago, Patty and Don went to Mass as usual — except that Father Cullen asked them to “bring all your kids. I haven’t seen them for a while.”
All proceeded normally until . . .
“I received holy Communion and behind me, I heard Father Cullen say, ‘The body of Christ, Don,’ and I literally froze,” said Patty. “I had been praying for my husband’s conversion for 40 years. . . . I turned around and looked at Father Cullen, and then Don, and burst into tears. All three of us hugged. We stopped the whole Mass so we could take in the moment. It was a total shock.”
Father Cullen had been privately, secretly, instructing Don for months.
That was Father Cullen’s way — explaining the Catholic faith and making it easy to understand, especially at weddings when many non-Catholics would be present.
He was also a dutiful son, taking leave of his priestly duties so he could care for his mother until her death.
Father Tony Lickteig, a retired priest at Curé of Ars Parish, remembered Father Cullen this way.
“He was a very friendly and sincere person,” said Father Lickteig. “He was very open and honest. You never doubted where he stood or what he thought. He spoke the truth in love, and sometimes people didn’t like what he had to say, but you always knew what he thought. With honesty, sincerity and kindness, he let you know.”
Father Cullen was preceded in death by his parents Charles and Nell. A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Dec. 1 at Curé of Ars Parish, followed by burial next to his parents at Resurrection Cemetery in Lenexa. Funeral arrangements were by Muehlebach Funeral Care in Kansas City, Missouri.