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Each week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

April 1, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 222




Tom Fox A man of unassuming brilliance

By Tom Fox, NCR publisher

SAGINAW, Michigan -- Ken Untener, the much loved bishop of Saginaw, will be buried today.

In early February, Untener, 66, announced to the Catholics of Saginaw diocese that he had been diagnosised with myelodysplasic syndrome, a form of leukemia and would begin intensive treatment at the Barbara A. Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit. He died six weeks later, March 27, at Immaculate Heart of Mary Infirmary in Monroe, Mich.

His body has rested for the past two days at the foot of the altar in St. Stephen's church in Saginaw. It has drawn mourners from around the state and beyond.

"He was the most profound and most human person I have ever known," remarked Servants of Jesus Sr. Corrine Weiss, who runs the Saginaw Diocese's Mission Office, echoing accolades found commonly here in respectful conversations in the vestibule of St. Stephen's.

Thousands have entered the church to sign mourning registries and to accept funeral cards commemorating Untener's ministry, all the while milling around tables that hold photo displays of their bishop's 24-year ministry. Eventually, each walked down the church's center aisle to pray quietly at the open casket.

On one table was a touching letter Untener wrote just weeks ago, Feb. 16, 2004. It was a letter expressing his regrets that, due to his illness, he could not go to Huntington Beach, Calif., to accept the annual distinguished service award from the National Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy.

"I've still got some ideas to suggest about this church we love, and I want to be part of what I believe is an imminent and wondrous rebirth," he wrote. "I regret not being with you in person." Untener remained a man of profound hope.

Members of the Untener family received the mourners, accepting their grievances.

"It was all so fast. We are in a state of shock," said Kathy Haven, Communications Director for the diocese.

Untener's death came quickly. In the weeks leading up to Christmas he noticed he was tiring easily. He underwent a series of tests, which confirmed Feb. 10 that he had the acute form of leukemia. Just six weeks later, he died, March 25.

"We didn't have an adequate chance to say, 'good-bye,'" said Haven.

A prayer service Tuesday evening began fittingly with "The Servant Song" written by Richard Gilliard. Untener saw himself as a servant bishop. When he was first consecrated as Saginaw bishop he said, "My name is Ken, and I'm going to be your waiter, and I'm going to serve you for a long time."

Editor's Note
      An indepth appreciation of Bishop Untener and his ministry will appear in the April 9 issue National Catholic Reporter.
      WJRT-TV, Channel 12 broadcast a tribute to the bishop, and the clip is available on its Web site: Saginaw gathers to say goodbye.
For the Catholics of Saginaw that "long time," 24 years, was not long enough. Several priests and family members mentioned that they had been looking forward to a 25th anniversary celebration of Untener ministry near the end of next year.

His death will cause a void in Saginaw. His love and commitment to service reached well beyond Catholics and drew the community together across racial, religious and ethnic lines.

On Monday more than 500 people -- Catholic and Protestant, black and white -- gathered at Victorious Believers Ministries Church of God in Christ in Buena Vista Township for a memorial service for Untener. He was referred to as a man of unassuming brilliance who was a driving force behind numerous efforts to improve the lives of all Saginawians.

Fr. John Sarge, pastor of St. Casimir and St. George Catholic churches, recalled that Untener made that the theme of his ministry from the moment he was ordained at the then-Saginaw Civic Center.

Today's 11:00 a.m. funeral will be broadcast live throughout the region.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at

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