Road to Fall River was led by spirit of faith, devotion, and adventure

By Dave Jolivet, Anchor Editor

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NEWARK, N.J. — In a recent interview in the humble home of Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V. in Newark N.J., the man soon to become bishop of the Diocese of Fall River told The Anchor, “I always had an adventurous spirit.” 

It was that spirit of adventure combined with a deep faith and devotion to Jesus Christ and His Church that led him from a simple village, Riachão do Jacuípe, Bahia, Brazil, where he was born in 1953, to the Diocese of Fall River where he will be installed as the diocese’s eighth bishop at St. Mary’s Cathedral on September 24.

The foundation of faith for Bishop da Cunha was first laid in that Brazilian village by his family. “I come from a large family,” he said. “I have 13 brothers and sisters. My family was very supportive.

“Where we lived, we didn’t live close by to a church, so we didn’t have Mass every Sunday. We had it when the priest came. But we had a strong faith life in the family and in the neighborhood. We prayed together and God was so important in the lives of the people in my home town. It was very traditional values and faith that we received from our parents and grandparents that continues living on.

“The day the priest came everything stopped. Everyone went to church. It was a whole-day thing. It was so important to us when those days came, feasts, processions and the feast of the patron of the town.”

Bishop da Cunha said that today many people are in a rush to get to church, and there are many churches available and Masses available and many don’t even make the effort to go.

“I look back and I treasure those days,” the bishop continued. “I don’t feel like, ‘Too bad we didn’t have this and we didn’t have that.’ I say thank God for what we had because they were simple things. We didn’t have all the comforts and luxuries that we have today. We had other very important values and I thank God for that. The influence of the faith and support of my family was so important in my development.”

Another great influence in Bishop da Cunha’s life was the presence of the Vocationist Fathers. “I was baptized by the Vocationist Fathers,” he said. “In fact, the priest who baptized me came to my ordination as auxiliary bishop in Newark 11 years ago.

“I grew up under the influence and Spirit of the Vocationists, whose primary mission is to promote vocations. The pastor of my parish built a vocationary (minor seminary) there. So I saw other young men join the seminary and heard them talking about the Vocationists promoting vocations. I kept becoming more and more interested in the joy of the seminary.

“It’s funny because even before I joined the seminary, even before I told my pastor, he pulled me aside and said, ‘I think you’re going to be a priest.’ And I said, ‘Well I might but I think I have to think about it some more.’ Eventually I did decide that’s where I want to go and joined the vocationary there.”

While the young man was a student at the vocationary in Riachão do Jacuípe, the Vocationists’ Superior General visited. “He asked me, ‘Would you be interested in going to the United States?’” The Vocationist Fathers had recently established a presence at St. Michael’s Parish in Newark, N.J. Because of the growing Hispanic community there, the archdiocese asked the Vocationists to take over St. Michael’s. “When they took over, they needed some new blood there,” said Bishop da Cunha.

“And I had always had an adventurous spirit and that kind of thing,” he continued. “And I said to the Superior General, ‘You know what? I would like that.’ He told me if I was really serious about it, they would start planning on it.

“The night before I was to come to the United States, I couldn’t sleep very well. I realized it was going to be a big change for me. I was going to move out of my country and go to the U.S. The next morning the Superior General asked if I still wanted to go, and I said yes.”

Bishop da Cunha said he didn’t think he was going to stay there, but rather help out and learn a new language and get some valuable experience and bring those things back to Brazil with him. “But in the Superior General’s mind, he said, ‘He’ll go and he’ll like it and he’ll stay,’” Bishop da Cunha said.

That was in 1978. Bishop da Cunha was ordained a Vocationist Father at St. Michael’s in 1982 and soon after was appointed vocation director. Less than four years later, he was named pastor of St. Nicholas Parish in Newark. “Thirty-six years later I’m here and a bishop,” he said. “It’s amazing when I think of it. How did all this happen?”

Besides his roles as pastor and vocation director, Bishop da Cunha’s experiences in the Archdiocese of Newark include vicar for evangelization and vicar general and auxiliary bishop. “The experiences I gained were pastoral and administrative,” he said. “You need to be able to strike a balance between the two. It is so important. Those two things coming together is not easy. I had a tremendous opportunity for gaining experience in running a diocese. I feel this was preparing me to become Bishop of Fall River.

“Somehow I feel that God has given me those gifts. I’ve been able to put them into use in my life. I hope that I will be able to continue to be a good pastoral leader and a good administrator in the Diocese of Fall River.”

Bishop da Cunha told The Anchor that when he comes to the Diocese of Fall River he hopes to continue to stress the importance of vocations.

“I hope that I can encourage people to pray for vocations in general, in families,” the bishop said. “I hope to encourage young people to look at a religious vocation as a viable vocation in life; as something that is fulfilling, is joyful, is happy, and that priests are not unhappy miserable people. I want them to know priests are happy and fulfilled people.

“I want them to know there is more to life than just working, accumulating wealth — that you can be really happy and fulfilled doing God’s work with the Church, too.

“I hope we can bring that idea to parishes, families, schools, colleges and youth ministries. We must make priests and lay people all promoters of vocations, because if we don’t the Church won’t survive without priests, the Eucharist and the Sacraments. Encouraging vocations has to be a priority not just for me but for our priests and our lay people, and I’ll make sure that doesn’t get put on the back burner. It will be in the forefront of our work.”

When asked what he knows about the Diocese of Fall River, the bishop said, “Considering that I knew nothing when I got the call from the nuncio, I’ve come to know a considerable amount about the diocese through reading and talking to people. I recently attended a retreat of bishops of New England and Archbishop (Daniel A.) Cronin was there. He told me a great deal about the diocese and he said he always loved it there.”

He said he’s been in contact with Fathers Michael McManus and Greg Mathias from the chancery and also Bishop George W. Coleman. “And, I’ve been reading The Anchor,” he added.

The bishop admitted his knowledge of the diocese was just “on the surface,” and when he finally arrives here he has much to learn.

“I need to know more about the priests, the people, the parishes,” he said. “I’m ready to go in with open ears and do a lot of listening.

“I want to hear, before anything else, I want to hear what the needs are; the hopes are; the gifts are, so that we can put those gifts and needs together and plan the work for the future.

“I think part of the reason I’m coming to the Diocese of Fall River is because of my work with a diversity of cultural settings. That’s why I think my whole life here in Newark, my experiences, I’m confident, will be of use.

“I always tell people and I tell myself diversity is actually not a hindrance; it’s an asset. It’s a gift. That’s what I’m hoping to convey. Let’s all use that in building up the Kingdom in the Diocese of Fall River with the gifts of priests, people and parishes.

“Those I’ve spoken with who have worked with or in the Diocese of Fall River say it’s a wonderful diocese and you’re going to do well.”

The Diocese of Fall River is a long way from Riachão do Jacuípe, Bahia, Brazil, and a change from Newark, N.J., but it seems that all roads travelled so far by Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha have prepared him for and led him to southeastern Massachusetts and the faithful who live here.

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts