Focus: HOPE Founder

Father Cunningham

Born in Detroit in 1930, William T. Cunningham began his studies for the priesthood at Sacred Heart Seminary and continued them at St. John’s Provincial Seminary. Ordained in 1955, he was a parish priest for five years, and was a founding member of the Archbishop’s Commission on Human Relations. He joined the faculty of Sacred Heart Seminary as an English teacher in 1961. For eight years, Fr. Cunningham was a columnist and book review editor of the Michigan Catholic. In 1969 he was named pastor of the Church of the Madonna in Detroit, and had served six years as a Vicar and six years as a Consultor for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

As a young priest, Father William T. Cunningham marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and preached eloquently against “the malignancy of racism.” In 1968, Fr. Cunningham and Eleanor Josaitis founded Focus: HOPE. It came into being after the city’s devastating 1967 riots. With an interracial band of volunteers, Fr. Cunningham and Josaitis worked to bring the black and white communities together and prevent another riot.

He scoffed at being called a visionary – preferring instead to be characterized as an energetic leader who could get things done. In the 1970s, he shamed Congressional lawmakers into funding a food program by pointing out how milk was poured down sewers rather than given to hungry babies in the richest country in the world. He listened as city residents complained about high prices and commissioned a study that proved unequivocally that food and prescriptions cost as much as 30 percent more in city stores at the time.

When he saw African Americans and others excluded from well-paying jobs in Michigan’s industrial economy, he built a campus from abandoned industrial buildings by engaging business leaders in his vision of a campus where men and women from Focus: HOPE’s impoverished neighborhood could earn a college degree at the Center for Advanced Technologies and join the highest ranks of management.

Cunningham was named to the State of Michigan’s Task Force on Vandalism and Violence in the Schools, and to both state and city Task Forces on Hunger and Malnutrition. He served on the State Holiday Commission for Martin Luther King Jr. and on the Citizens’ Commission to Improve Michigan Courts. He was also a member of the Detroit Public Schools Dropout Prevention Collaborative, the Detroit Strategic Planning Project, and the Detroit Casino Gaming Commission. Cunningham served as a member of the State of Michigan 2000 Committee to achieve the six national education goals. And he was selected to be a panelist for the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. He received numerous awards and held an honorary membership in the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (the SME’s highest honor). He did graduate work at Marquette University, the University of Detroit, Wayne State University, and the University of London and was awarded five honorary doctoral degrees.

On May 26, 1997, Fr. Cunningham died after a battle with cancer. By the time his life drew to an end in 1997, Father Cunningham had left an indelible mark on the community. High profile leaders and common citizens alike were inspired by Cunningham’s vision of a society that embraces its diversity.