Obituaries

Rev. Anthony J. Kuzniewski, 71, Holy Cross historian and chaplain to sports teams

The Rev. Anthony Kuzniewski.
College of the Holy Cross
The Rev. Anthony Kuzniewski.

In a late entry on his blog, the Rev. Anthony J. Kuzniewski, recalled that he would often tell people “summer passes more swiftly than the other seasons; but, come to think, they all pass quickly.”

That was certainly the case in his position as a history professor at the College of the Holy Cross, and it “is true in my role as athletic chaplain. The wait seems endless for a team’s season to begin; then it seems to go by in a flash.”

Known on campus simply as Father K, he was the college’s historian and chaplain to several of its sports teams. “Being a chaplain is always a wonderful kind of gift,” he said for a video prepared in his hometown of Milwaukee by Boy Scout Troop 61, for which he was also a chaplain. “You know the priesthood, you’re ordained to be of service.”

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In classrooms, riding on a team bus, or offering Mass at a Midwest campsite, Father Kuzniewski stressed that the disparate parts of each life are always connected. “As a priest, I don’t want our student-athletes to have compartmentalized lives – ‘This is what I do as an athlete. This is what I do as a person of faith. This is what I do as a student,’ ” he told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in April when the college renamed Holy Cross Field in his honor. “Somehow they’re all interrelated and I like the chance to blend them a bit.”

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Father Kuzniewski, who was a board member for institutions including The Nativity School of Worcester, to which he donated the honorariums he received for weddings and baptisms, died of cancer Dec. 19 in Campion Health Center in Weston. He was 71 and had taught at Holy Cross for about four decades.

“You could find a thousand ‘Father K changed my life’ and ‘Father K was so important to me’ stories,” said Edward T. O’Donnell, an associate professor of history at Holy Cross who had a story of his own, having changed his career path as an undergraduate to teaching history after becoming one of Father Kuzniewski’s students.

“He combined a real studious, scholarly, engaging lecture approach with a lot of low-key humor that was always an important part of his delivery,” O’Donnell added. “Straight up lecturing has sort of fallen out of fashion at colleges, but all of his classes sold out all the time. He was a real master of that format. I would say he was old-school in the very best possible sense of that phrase.”

Among athletes, meanwhile, “Father K was there for all the other stuff that you didn’t have a specialized trainer for,” said Patrick Maloney, who managed the Holy Cross men’s basketball team while Father Kuzniewski was the chaplain.

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The connection stemmed in part from the challenges the athletes and their chaplain shared.

“He was in the grind just like everybody else,” said Maloney, who is interim president of the Nativity School. “He understood that you were rolling up to College Hill at 2 a.m., having just played a game, and that you had a class at 8 o’clock. He was doing the same thing because he was getting up to teach a class. He was right there with you.”

The older of two siblings, Father Kuzniewski was born in Carthage, Mo., and grew up in Milwaukee, where his parents, Anthony Kuzniewski and the former Alice Tomaszewski, owned Quality Electric Service.

Father Kuzniewski attended Marquette University High School in Milwaukee and studied history at Marquette University, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1966. At Harvard University, he was a Woodrow Wilson fellow and a Harvard Graduate Prize fellow, receiving a master’s in 1967 and a doctorate in 1973.

A year earlier, he entered the New England Province of the Society of Jesus and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1979. Father Kuzniewski also graduated from the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago with a master’s of divinity degree, but despite his diplomas, “his title as a Jesuit superseded his title as doctor, both in his heart and his head as well,” said his niece, Annie Reifsnyder of Milwaukee.

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She added that Father Kuzniewski “had an amazing brother-sister connection” with her late mother, Susan Kuzniewski Reifsnyder.

Though he lived in Massachusetts for about 50 years, Father Kuzniewski remained a Midwesterner at heart, displaying memorabilia in his office from Marquette and from Wisconsin teams such as the Green Bay Packers. He visited Wisconsin annually and wrote hundreds of cards and letters over the years to Annie and her two brothers, Michael Reifsnyder of Omaha and Tom Reifsnyder of Osaka, Japan. “He was obviously Father K, but he was a second father to the three of us as well,” she said.

Father Kuzniewski received the Distinguished Teaching Award in 2002 at Holy Cross, where his popular classes included “The Age of Jackson,” “Lincoln and his Legacy,” and “From Kennedy to Watergate.” In addition, he taught seminars on the Civil War and the history of Holy Cross, which was the subject of his monograph “Thy Honored Name: A History of the College of the Holy Cross, 1843-1994.”

His scholarship focused on the history of Polish immigrants in Wisconsin and their faith, which earned a lifetime achievement award from the Polish American Historical Association. He published the book “Faith and Fatherland: The Polish Church War in Wisconsin, 1896-1918” in 1981.

Father Kuzniewski also held close his own history, serving as chaplain of the scout troop to which he belonged as a boy when he achieved the top rank of Eagle. He said a Mass for the scouts during his annual summer visits, turning campsites into places of worship, much as he found impromptu places to pray while on the road with Holy Cross teams. “If we couldn’t get to a chapel, or there wasn’t a church nearby the hotel, we would have a service in his hotel room,” Maloney said.

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October, Father Kuzniewski posted a note at the end of November on a Holy Cross sports fan website thanking those who had sent thoughts and prayers his way. “My journey through life has been an unexpectedly wonderful one,” he wrote.

A funeral Mass has been said for Father Kuzniewski, and a celebration of his life will be announced.

“He was such a humble person. When I asked him if there was anything he wanted, he said, ‘Just smile,’ ” his niece Annie said, recounting their last conversation. “That was him.”

Along with helping open The Nativity School of Worcester, a Jesuit middle school that provides all-scholarship education, Father Kuzniewski served on its board for several years and donated every check that came his way, even to his last days. “I would call to thank him,” Maloney said, “and he was always apologetic that he wasn’t a millionaire and couldn’t do more.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.