Area’s first African-American priest dies

Father Leonard Cunningham, OCSO

MONCKS CORNER—Trappist Father Leonard Aloysius Cunningham, the first African-American from Charleston to be ordained a priest, died Dec. 5 at his Mepkin Abbey home. He was 87.

A Mass of Christian burial was held Dec. 9 at the abbey church and burial was in the Mepkin cemetery. Father Leonard was born in Charleston on Feb. 14, 1923, a son of the late Harley and Marion Cunningham. He attended Charleston’s all black Immaculate Conception School on Coming Street and at the age of 7 decided he wanted to be a priest.

Father Leonard Cunningham, OCSOHe graduated in 1942 and entered Holy Ghost Seminary in Connecticut.

Father Leonard was ordained a priest on June 1, 1950. On June 3, 1950, he became the first African-American to celebrate Mass at St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Charleston. The Holy Ghost Fathers assigned Father Leonard to Holy Ghost Parish in Detroit, Mich., where he served until 1960.

He returned to South Carolina to become a Trappist monk at Our Lady of Mepkin Abbey.

For health reasons, Father Leonard took a leave of absence from Mepkin in 1968. For the next seven years he celebrated Mass on Sunday at the Charleston Air Force Base and headed the Union Heights Community Center in North Charleston.

During his time in Union Heights, a poor, primarily African-American neighborhood, Father Leonard assisted the community in everything from housing to food.

In 1977 he ran for the S.C. House of Representatives on a platform seeking public housing for the people of Union Heights. While he lost the election, his efforts secured public housing for them.

Father Leonard resumed his life at Mepkin in October 1977.

He is survived by his community. Messages of condolence or memorial donations may be sent to the Trappist brothers:

Mepkin Abbey
1098 Mepkin Abbey Road
Moncks Corner, SC 29461