Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on June 9, 1974 · Page 80
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 80

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, June 9, 1974
Page 80
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Page 80 article text (OCR)

Thou Art a Priest--Forever! By Martha Smith One sunny day in Pittsburgh around the turn of the century, little Tony Schoeppner was skipping down the street carrying a bucket of sauerkraut. His parents, Phillip and Mary Schoeppner, were devout Catholics and it was a great source of pride for Mrs. Schoeppner that the nuns in the convent requested her homemade sauerkraut. She made a great batch and, when it was ready, poured it into a large bucket. "Go take this to the sisters," she instructed Tony. And he set out. But, as is often the case, temptation overcame the little boy. He began swinging the pail over his head, testing the power of centrifugal force. Nature failed him with a mighty plot and the sauerkraut lay everywhere. Tony bent over and scooped up the kraut, including with it quantities of dirt, stones, sticks and other debris. He shook the concoction down in the pail so no foreign matter showed. He ran up the convent steps, knocked on the door and, when it was opened, thrust the pail into a nun's hand, saying only, "My mother sent this to you." · In later months, Mrs. Schoeppner couldn't understand why the sisters no longer asked her to make sauerkraut. In fact, when she offered to share her specialty, they went to great lengths to devise excuses for refusing the dish. She never knew why until May 25,1922, when Tony became Father Cuthbert Anthony Schoeppner, O.F.M. Cap. On that day, Father Cuthbert, ordained a Capuchin priest, told his mother why the sisters were wary of her sauerkraut. On that day, as the bishop faced Father Cuthbert, part of his charge in the ordination vows were: "Thou art a priest forever ..." And this week, as Fr. Cuthbert celebrates his 80th birthday, he epitomizes all that a priest should be. He can look back on the naughty little boy who was Tony Schoeppner and smile. ^ Father Cuthbert dot^A't exactly smile. He twinkles. He twinkles behind round spectacles which give him a wise, owlish look. And all the time he twinkles, he grumbles. The portly little priest (barely five-feet-tall) works dilligently to protect his image of Cuthbert-the-Curmudgeon. But those who love him know that under the crusty grumbling there is a wry sense of humor, a kind heart and a pious soul. Fr. Cuthbert stories are nearly as numerous as Sam Chilton stories. It's virtually impossible to talk with a former altar boy or parishioner Of S^ Anthony's who doesn't Fr. Culhherl is nol above leasing friends who visit, play hall willi him. have an "I remember the time'Fr. Cuthbert did such- and-such" story. +· The man who this week reaches his 80th milestone is indeed beloved. In 52 years of priest hood he has raised a parish from debt, built a glorious church, and become an institution throughout the state.. Fr. Cuthbert can ben seen in the garden of Sacred Heart rectory -- where he lives in retirement -- examining the tomato plants or quietly praying. Usually he wears a brown habit, tied with a rope which droops beneath his ample stomach. A cap protects his white- fringed dome from the sun's direct rays. He also can be seen substituting as chaplain at St. Francis Hospital, making the rounds among the patients. Wherever he's seen, someone will come to him and say, "Oh, Fr.-Cuthbert, do you remember me?" He always asks for names and, when they're supplied, he replies with the time, date and place in which he presided at the person's wedding or baptism. Fr. Cuthbert gruffly contends the only reason the young priests have him around the rectory is to serve as the butt of their jokes. "They're all the time cutting me down," he complains. But the twinkle is there and somehow the complaint seems rather weak. In fact, the younger priests dote on him, and most affectionately call him Cutty. And he admits he spends an unseemly amount of time concocting ways to get in the first jab or the last word. When all else fails, he feigns partial deafness. Actually, those who know him well say Fr. Cuthbert isn't hard of hearing, he's merely hard of listening. »· Anthony Schoeppner was born June 12, 1894, in Pittsburgh, Pa. His sister became a nun and one of his two brothers became a^Pas- sionist brother. Tony's early years were filled with all the mischief normal in little boys. He recalls the day he was in fourth grade and was engaged in his dozenth fistfight of the week. A nun, glancing out an upstairs window, witnessed the proceedings and. sent a message to Tony. Fr. Cuthbert recalls: "A boy came up to me and said 'Sister wants to see you.' I said 'me? What's she want?' I was really expecting to get balled out. So I went up and she looked me straight in the eye and said, 'How'd you like to be an altar boy?' He attended parochial school through eighth grade, but there was no parochial high school so he took business training -- a course of study which was to prove invaluable when he came to St. Anthonys. He went to St. Fidelis Seminary in Herman, Pa. ("I didn't stay longer than I had to"), then to Novitiate for a trial year. "After that I threw my lot with the Caps (Capuchins)", he explains. He studied philosophy two years in Kansas, then studied four years at St. Peter and Pauls Monastery in Cumberland, Md. He was or- dained in 1922 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Today he is the only Capuchian survivor of the ordination class of 1922. "It's hard to elaborate on why I became a priest," he says thoughtfully. "But I'll tell you this story. One Christmas my mother encouraged me to go to mass. There was a big crib with life-size figures. My mother said 'Go pay a visit to the crib.' I went uo after mass and knealt at the crib. I was looking at the figure and I thought I saw the little child Jesus wink at me. I told my mother and she said 'Maybe he meant "Come follow me.' " That got me to thinking." · Although his brother was a Passionist, Fr. Cuthbert says he never tried to influence his decision a b o u t which order to join. - He recounts his indecision and the advice given him by the director of the college: "Pray to St. Paul of the Cross and to St. Francis and let them fight it out in heaven." When he selected the Capuchin order, his advisor noted, "St. Francis must have won." A young friar later observed: "I doubt if St. Francis won, considering what he got." What St. Francis got, as proclaimed under a portrait of Fr. Cuthbert which hangs in St. Anthonys rectory, was a good and faithful servant. When he came to Charleston in 1934, St. Anthonys was floundering financially. There was no rectory, so, for seven years, Fr. Cuthbert slept in a little room in the back of the church. He says of that parish. "It was an up-growing congregation of about 250 people." Many of the parishioners were Polish or Belgian transients brought here to work at industrial plants. As Fr. Cuthbert put his financial expertise to work and the church began, operating in the black, a dream started to form. "I never dreamed I'd build the new church," he says thoughtfully, "but I told them when I started the collection, not to get excited. I'm not going to build a new church, I'm saving this for the next fellow." ** In 1954, Fr. Cuthbert's dream became reality as St. Anthonys was dedicated in the Marian Year. He had planned the church to the tiniest detail -- what each stained glass window would' portray, w h a t company would provide the best pipe organ, what colors were complementary. So beautiful was the outcome of his planning that one depatt- ment store official offered him a job as a designer any- t i m e he wanted to go to work. Fr. Cuthbert is proud of St. Anthonys. He glows when he hears a compliment. But he insists, in a grouchy grumble, of course, the he didn't have all the details planned in advance. Gnawing on his ever : present thick cigar, he does admit he knew what should be in the windows before he had them made to order in Pittsburgh. He explains: "I w a n t e d St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Elizabeth of Hugary, the first Capuchin martyr, St. Fidelis, St. Lad- islaus." Other windows depict St. Maria Coretti, Our Lady of Fatima, St. Pius X, and the Saint of the World. Most interesting, perhaps, are the stained glass windows in the work sacristy where the woman of the church prepare flower arrangements and .candles. For those windows, Fr. Cuthbert selected lillies, floral bouquets and a beehive 'symbolizing the beeswax from which the candles are made. it-There are countless tales of Fr. Cuthbert's no-nonsense rule at St. Anthonys. There was, for instance, the time he padlocked his refrigerator because he suspected the alter boys of snitching snacks from his private store. Terry Marchal recounts the time he and another alter boy decided to play a trick on two other servers. Marchal and his friend accidentally got locked in the closet where the robes were kept and nearly missed mass. "Fr. Cuthbert grumbled at me all through the mass," he laughs. "He was always telling me 'Terry, you've got giggles around you.' I used to p r a y so hard t h a t I wouldn't miss a response and he's yell at me, and I always missed about all of them." Yet another alter boy says he was so frightened of making a mistake, he went behind the church each Sunday morning and threw up his breakfast. It wasn't that Fr. Cuthbert was mean. He just wanted things done right. And he had perfected the art of grumbling if things weren't done right. »· Fr. Cuthbert isn't used to idleness. And, when he entered retirement after 33 years at St. Anthonys he was quick to point out he was retired, he did not retire. The occasion of his 80th birthday is something of a marvel to Fr. Cuthbert who freely admits he did not expect to live to age 70. He has had several brushes with death, including a serious appendicitis attack and several bouts with runaway sugar diabetes. He is a favorite of St. Francis Hospital nurses who love him even though, when he was in traction with his back out of whack, he insisted on unhooking the weights each time the nurses' backs were turned. Fr. Cuthbert used to drive a car, but q u i t a f t e r he passed out in diabetic coma and slammed into a utility pole several years ago. "You know the last thing I remember seeing before I hit that pole?" he asks with a chuckle. "A sign on a gas station that said Happy Motoring." His explanation as to why he has survived these very serious illnesses and^ accidents is one of profound faith: "The good Lord want- 2m June 9*-)9"/4l Su

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