- Created: 11 March 2017
The 50th Year of Air Scout Troop
Father Cunningham was born on 30 March 1924 in Dublin Ireland, and received his primary and secondary education at the Jesuit's Belvedere College. He joined the Jesuit's Order upon graduation on 7 September 1942, and then continued his studies in History at the University College of Dublin.
Impressed with the work of Jesuits in south China whilst at Belvedere, he volunteered to come to Hong Kong after university, and was accepted. Arriving in Hong Kong on 3 Oct 1951, he spent the first two years learning Chinese. In 1953 he joined the teaching staff at WYK.
On 24 Oct 1953 he was invested as a member of 11th Kowloon and was appointed Scoutmaster of the reorganized Senior Troop. In this capacity, he participated in the Award ceremony as the Governor's Group at Governor House on 21 Dec 1953.
"A scout's primary work is service." he wrote in the 11th Group report. True to his words, he was able to convince some of the scouts just back from X'mas Group Camp to participate right after, in relief work for the Sek Kip Mei 石硤尾 fire disaster at the end of 1953.
After 1954, Father went off to further his studies in theology and was ordained on 31 July 1957 in Ireland. He returned to WYK in 1959 and actively engaged in WYK's school life immediately.
Father believed not so much putting knowledge into boys, as drawing out whatever natural talents they had. After hearing different age groups of students discussing matters of aviation, he founded the Aviation Club on 29 Oct 1960, to maintain their interest and possibly to help further a career if desired. Also in light of that, the Auto Club was started on 12 March 1962.
Following the Jesuit teaching of "a man for others", as a service to the community, he also founded in this period, the HK Road Safety Association in 1961, and served as its president 1961-67. In 1963, he oversaw the formation of the HK Road Safety Patrol that focused on road safety of school children.
Father was above all, a priest, and a devoted one. He was always up by 5:30am to say daily Mass at Maryknoll Convent, and in his tenure as Apostolate of the Sea ('59 - '64), just as diligently and rose even earlier, so he can do the same on some ships in harbour.
He became the RAF Chaplain in Nov 1966, taking charge of about 60 Catholic families of the Royal Air Force stationed at Kai Tak. In 1968, he, together with two Air Scouts and two Guides from 6th Company Kowloon of Maryknoll Convent School, introduced the first Folk Mass with guitars based on Ray Repp's work to that community in his care.
In encouraging the boys to develop their natural gifts, his aim was not just their enjoyment, but their readiness "to help other people at all times". This was very much in evidence with the Scouts that he was so dedicated to. Setting a personal example, he served from 1959 to 1970, in various capacities in 11th's Group Council. Our Scouts were always on duty as honour guards, helping out at the annual Caritas Bazaars, WYK's winter clothing drive for the poor and as ushers at school functions.
In those years that he was with 11th Kowloon Group, he visited and said Mass at every one of our X'mas Group Camps. There were always kind words of encouragement, and amusement should he discover some new 'camp gadgets' that the boys had concocted. Of course the 'goodies' that he always managed to bring to supplement our uninspired backwoods cooking (dishes usually mixed with a bit of dirt and grass), were eagerly anticipated.
With his very extensive contacts and acquaintances, he was able to arrange in just the first year of the Air Scout Troop, visits to the USS Coral Sea, the HK Aircraft Engineering Co (HKAECO), the DC8 airliner, RAF Air Station and some of its aircrafts, the Airport Fire station, as well as Kai Tak Airport's Control Tower.
11th Kowloon Group remained his favourite involvement and he was keenly interested in whatever achievements the Group garnered. Of them, the most prized must have been the Air Scout Troop which he founded in the summer of 1967. In April 1969, he accompanied Peter Lo and Andrew Kam to the International Air Cadet Exchange in the US, and just before he left in 1970, sent me a photo with the Queen’s Scouts of that year, with a brief note "Our first Queen's Air Scouts !!!" In his flourished handwriting, and the multiple exclamation marks, his tremendous pride seemed to leap off the paper.
Fr. Cunningham ended his involvement with our Group, as Scoutmaster of the Air Scouts in 1970.
Known to his fellow Jesuits simply as PJ, he was efficiency personified, and a repository of vast amount of knowledge, especially things mechanical and in aviation which he took a fancy to very early on in his youth.
Father was also a superb organizer and a stickler for details. He succeeded in overcoming the mind-boggling logistics in April 1963, to bring the entire 11th Kowloon Group, PLUS the Aviation Club, almost a hundred kids, to and from the aircraft carrier USS Constellation, and even had mimeographed sheets for the guiding parties of sailors, detailing what he wished us to see.
He taught the lower Forms History and English. His emphasis on pronunciation, end syllables (尾音) and delivery speed put many a young WYK boy's spoken English in good stead. He used to say, in accented Cantonese "噴射機噤快!!" to admonish us to slow down, which brought uproarious laughter in class, and thereby sunk that into our memories.
It is therefore not surprisingly, that he was the Speech instructor of cabin crews for Cathay Pacific Airlines too.
Father was optimistic, cheerful, dedicated and utterly unselfish in his readiness to help others. With the experience of the Air Scou Troop in 1969, he assisted in the formation of an Air Ranger unit (Senior Girl Guides), mustering members from 6th and 19th Kowloon Companies (Maryknoll Convent School).
Also in 1969-70, using his connections, he helped Mr. Warren Geddes put together the HK Air Cadets Corp, culminating in its establishment in 1971.
It was indeed a great loss to WYK, because in 1970 Father was reassigned by his Superior to a parish in Singapore.
Even more devastating, as he was coming back on a planned visit on 15 June 1972, his plane was blown up somewhere over the vicinity of Pleiku, Vietnam, tragically with all aboard perished.
He was never to watch his documentary movies, and listen to Beethoven, both his favourites again.
All who knew him grieved. Father Cunningham was only forty eight.
Interview by Bill Fang: Signum - Nov1 1967