Editor’s note: This column was originally published in the Sunday Magazine March 21, 1999. Because St. Augustine of Canterbury parish in Belleville is celebrating its 60th anniversary with Mass and dinner today, we thought readers might like to see it again. Monsignor Urban “Father Urb” Kuhl was the first pastor there from 1955 to 1995. He died in 2003.
A typical conversation goes like this:
“What did you say your name was ... Kuhl? Any relation to Monsignor Kuhl?”
“You bet,” I say. “He’s my dad’s little brother.”
“Really” Well, I’ll be darned,” the caller says. “Father Kuhl married Gert and me. And he baptized all our kids. Married them, too.”
The caller, now talking to me like an old friend, wil usually tell me a Father Kuhl story. I’ve probably heard all the stories a million times, but I never get tired of them.
“I remember the time Gert was sick and Father Kuhl came to the house. Drove up in a big black car, chewing on a big ol’ cigar (pronounced SEE-gar) ....”
Everybody’s story has a big black car and a big ol’ cigar in it. They are Father Kuhl’s trademarks. Along with a tireless energy.
He would sit down next to Gert, hold her hand and talk to her. He’d talk to her about all her kids — Johnny off at college, and where’s Jimmy stationed these days?
He would tell her how bingo went last Sunday and how nice of her it was to let someone else win for a change. How all the girls at the parish chicken dinner missed her. It was Father Kuhl’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” without Mr. Potter and the angels, just for Gert.
He’d tell her God loves her and he’d give her his blessing.
“And I’ll see you in church on Sunday,” he’d say. As he was walking down the sidewalk to the big black car, the cigar would magically reappear. It wasn’t lit most of the time. I guess he just kept it around for company, like George Burns.
Then Father Kuhl would be on his way and Gert would feel a whole lot better.
I know this because so many people have told me the same stories.
An ancient priest who pinch-hits at our parish once in a while likes to talk about the monsignor when they went to school together.
“Kuhl? He was a great catcher,” he said. “If he hadn’t become a priest, he would have been a heck of a ballplayer.
“But,” he said with a wink and a tap on his Roman collar, “I’m glad he’s on our team.”
I remember our family going to visit Father Kuhl on Sunday afternoons when he was a young priest. Father Urb, as family members called him, was in perpetual motion. The doorbell never stopped ringing. A constant stream of people wanted everything from scheduling the gym or a wedding reception to spiritual guidance to a few bucks to get by.
I remember following him and his big cigar across the street from the rectory to watch him play softball with some of the parishioners. Everybody wanted Father Kuhl on his team. I guess a slugger priest at the plate beats angels in the outfield.
Lots of people remember him starting St. Augustine of Canterbury’s parish when there was nothing but a name. For years, he celebrated Mass in the school gym. Parishioners would set up folding chairs for pews before the first Mass and take them down after the last. Afterward, he’d shoot a few baskets with the kids who hung around.
One of the News-Democrat photographers tells me he has bought enough 50-50 tickets from my uncle over the years to build St. Augustine’s Church single-handedly. And he’s not even Cathollic.
The Kuhl family weddings alone kept Father Kuhl hopping — from a second cousin twice removed to my own wedding, it was an honor to have Father Urb tie the knot. He might have a wedding or two and maybe a funeral on the same day as your blessed event, but somehow you could always count on him getting to the church on time. Often just in the nick of time.
The non-Kuhl part of the wedding party would get a little nervous when, minutes before start time, there was no sign of the priest. But we weren’t worried. We knew that somewhere out there the big black car was streaking toward the church.
And by the time the organist intoned “Here Comes the Bride,” Father Urb was waiting for her at the altar. And all was well.
Now Monsignor Kuhl is retired — sort of. He still travels all over to celebrate Mass and help out. Last Sunday, he had Mass in Smithton before heading to Aviston for a family gathering to celebrate his 80th birthday and his 54th anniversary as a priest.
He doesn’t have the big black car anymore and he had to give up the big ol’ cigars a while back. But he still has a way of making everyone feel a whole lot better.