Jesuit Father Anthony Kuzniewski, professor emeritus of history at the College of the Holy Cross, died on Monday, Dec. 19, 2016, at the Campion Health Center in Weston, Mass. at the age of 71 after a swift battle with cancer.
Fr. Kuzniewski was born on Jan. 28, 1945, in Carthage, a town in southwestern Missouri, near the Army Signal Corps base. This is where his father was stationed during World War II, training recruits in the operation and repair of electrical generators. His parents, Anthony and Alice (Tomaszewski), an accountant for the telephone company, had attended the parochial grammar school sponsored by their Polish ethnic parish in Milwaukee. After the war ended, they returned to Milwaukee and Fr. Kuzniewski and his younger sister Susan grew up there.
Fr. Kuzniewski attended parish schools where the Salvatorian Sisters quickly spotted his academic talent and had him tutoring less able students, who nicknamed him “Professor Anthony.” At Marquette University High he joined the Sodality and kept involved in his old Boy Scout troop with a group of friends who had grown up together. During a five-day silent retreat in high school, he spoke with the Jesuit director about a possible vocation to the priesthood and acknowledged that the decision was premature; the Jesuit advised him to “leave the decision to God” since the desire for priesthood would certainly return if were of God.
In 1962, Fr. Kuzniewski enrolled in Marquette University where he majored in history and found a mentor in Fr. Francis Paul Prucha, SJ, a noted scholar of American Indian history and U.S. government policy toward Native Americans. Prucha encouraged Fr. Kuzniewski to pursue graduate work and Fr. Kuzniewski entered Harvard on a full scholarship in 1966, intending to study the ante-bellum period in American history. He had a rocky start at Harvard. In a seminar including a unit on the Transcendentalist movement, he challenged the department chair, who had characterized Orestes Brownson’s conversion to Catholicism as the final point in his intellectual decline. Fr. Kuzniewski said he didn’t see the connection, a point the professor dismissed as irrelevant. Another professor told Fr. Kuzniewski that he wouldn’t expect him to thrive at Harvard, given his Marquette background. At the end of his first year, he received a letter from the chair saying that the department had decided to let him continue “against the better judgment” of several of its professors. Fr. Kuzniewski later learned that he wasn’t the only graduate student experiencing problems in the department; nine of the eighteen in the group he entered with failed to finish the program. Fr. Kuzniewski considered transferring to Johns Hopkins, where he had been accepted a year earlier.
The turnaround in Fr. Kuzniewski’s Harvard experience was abrupt and Fr. Kuzniewski thought of it as the first of a number of coincidences that shaped his life, which were graces in disguise (“a coincidence,” a friend of his ONCE told him, “is a series of events in which God remains anonymous”). The summer after his first year, a professor in whose seminar he had gotten a high grade, stopped him in Harvard Yard one day, told him that some of the faculty thought that the department had been too tough on its graduate students, and urged him to stay. Taking him at his word, Fr. Kuzniewski withdrew his Hopkins application.
In another coincidence, Weston College had recently moved to Cambridge and Fr. Kuzniewski made the acquaintance of a number of younger Jesuits in studies. He had got to know Fr. Robert Bireley, a Chicago Jesuit ahead of him in the history department. He was frequently attending daily Mass at LaFarge House, the residence for Jesuit graduate students, and Jesuits he met there invited him to join an eight-day directed retreat at Gloucester, where Bill Barry was his director. He and Bill continued the retreat in its 19th-annotation version starting in the late summer of 1971.
A decisive academic coincidence came while preparing for his comprehensive exams. Fr. Kuzniewski had entered Harvard intending to study the Jacksonian period. One of the professors overseeing part of his preparation for comprehensive exams was Oscar Handlin, who had created the field of immigration history. He asked Fr. Kuzniewski if he knew Polish and suggested that the Polish immigration to America was a topic that needed study. Fr. Kuzniewski decided to learn it and was able to spend time at the University of Warsaw on a Harvard grant in the summer of 1969. He eventually wrote his dissertation under Handlin, on the conflicts between German and Polish immigrants for influence in Catholic institutions in Milwaukee in the late 19th century. While working on the dissertation and seeing Bill Barry for spiritual direction, he applied to the Society and entered the New England novitiate in Boston in September 1972.
During his first year of novitiate he was able to finish his dissertation and he received the degree from Harvard in June 1973. In his second year he spent his long experiment at the Center of Concern in Washington. An Easter triduum with the Maryland novices at Wernersville—“three days of total consolation,” he said—ended once and for all his doubts about whether he should be a Jesuit.
He was assigned to regency at the College of the Holy Cross and took his first vows there in the fall of 1974. He initiated a course in immigration history, which became so popular the department wanted to keep him there when it came time for him to begin theology studies two years later. So, declining the offer of a tenure slot, he moved to the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago in the fall of 1976. Three years later he was ordained at Holy Cross with the other New England scholastics and was assigned to Loyola University Chicago for a pastoral year, working in campus ministry.
After that year, he expected to be assigned to the Holy Cross faculty but his old position was no longer available, so Fr. Kuzniewski returned to Loyola, to teach history. The following year the position in immigration studies unexpectedly opened up at Holy Cross and the provincial told him to apply. He remained at Holy Cross through the fall of 2016.
At Holy Cross his teaching and research fell into two broad areas. The first was the history of immigration to the U.S. and particularly the Polish role in that history. He published “Faith and Fatherland: The Polish Church War in Wisconsin, 1896-1918” and a number of articles and reviews dealing with Catholic immigration to the Midwest. Later, with a national conversation going on about Catholic and Jesuit higher education, and Holy Cross due to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its founding, Fr. Kuzniewski turned to writing a critical history of the first Catholic college to be established in Protestant New England. “Thy Honored Name: A History of the College of the Holy Cross: 1843-1994” was published in 1999.
While he was at Holy Cross, he also served as chair of the history department, as rector of the Jesuit community, and as province archivist after the New England archives were moved to Holy Cross. In 2007, he was the first Jesuit to be named teacher of the year. For two years he represented Holy Cross on the policy committee of the Patriot Academic League. In addition, he served as chaplain of several athletic teams: football, men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s lacrosse. The lacrosse field was named in his honor in 2016. And when the women’s crew team named a racing shell for him, it was wryly noted that painting “Rev. Anthony J. Kuzniewski, S.J.” on the side of the boat took up half the length of the craft.
In the fall of 2016, an unexpected diagnosis of pancreatic cancer led to his moving to Campion Center, where he declined further treatment. More visitors crowded his room than his condition really allowed but he serenely accepted and enjoyed their attention.
He told one visitor about an experience he had while making a personal retreat at Holy Cross during his first year of theology studies. “I had a consoling experience of Jesus leading me through a series of brightly lighted rooms, each so beautiful and with such wonderful people that I wanted to remain and enjoy where I was. But Jesus took me by the hand, prompting me to stay with him—there were still more wonderful people and spaces ahead, until we reached our Father, the culmination of the journey. In my whole life since, I’ve found that Jesus kept his promise: each part of the journey has been better than the previous one. I haven’t wanted to leave where I was but I trust that the next part will be even better.”
As Christmas drew near, the nursing staff thought he seemed weaker. On Mon., Dec. 19, Fr. Kuzniewski dressed and attended the morning community Mass, then spent some time with two colleagues from Holy Cross. He died peacefully that evening.