He had his own coat of arms. His formal title was “The Most Reverend Kenneth Untener, Fourth Bishop of Saginaw.” But to Saginawians of every religious persuasion, he was simply “Bishop Ken.”
Kenneth Untener was born in Detroit in 1937, the son of Andrew and Anna Kaynak Untener, a family of Hungarian origin. One of nine children, young Untener grew up on Belle Isle where his father was manager of the canoe livery. While he was attending St. Charles High School in Detroit, a congenital defect forced doctors to amputate his right leg three inches below the knee. The loss of his leg never slowed him down. His artificial leg was just part of his life and he was an enthusiastic hockey player. For many years, he and a group of friends met to skate at a hockey rink early in the morning.
He was educated at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and the St. John Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. After his ordination in 1963, his first assignment was as assistant pastor at St. Mary’s of Redford Catholic Church in Detroit. In 1965, he was appointed assistant chancellor for the Archdiocese of Detroit. In 1969, he was assigned to graduate theological studies at the Gregorian University in Rome and obtained his doctorate in theology in 1971. Returning to Detroit that year, he was appointed assistant to the Delegate for the Clergy, serving as liaison between priests and the Archdiocese. His writings included Thoughts on Stewardship, The Ascension Is More Than a Footnote, and Why I Decided to Become a Priest.
In 1977, he was made rector of the St. John Provincial Seminary, which trains young men for the priesthood. Untener made some changes in the rules and curriculum modernizing the seminary and its course of study.
In 1980, at the age of 43, he was selected to succeed the late Bishop Francis Reh as head of the Saginaw Diocese. His rapid rise made him one of the church’s youngest bishops and he joked that his prematurely grey hair would be an asset. He added that “I don’t look at my age with much trepidation” but pointed out that there was quite a difference between heading a seminary and leading a diocese of some 176,000 souls.
Right from the start, Bishop Untener was different. He announced that he planned to learn Spanish to better serve the area’s Hispanic community. After living in the traditional bishop’s mansion for a few months, he sold the big old house and, for the rest of his days in Saginaw, he moved his few belongings from rectory to rectory, living with his parish priests, getting to know them and their strengths and problems. He said, “I see the role of bishops as offering them service and support, to help those serving the flocks achieve their goals—a ministry to ministers.”
He said that one of his top priorities as bishop was to make the Sunday morning liturgy meaningful to churchgoers. Asked about the church’s role in politics, he said, “The church has to…constantly challenge the political structures of the world but we can’t be in a takeover position in the political process as they did years ago, telling parishioners who to vote for. The church can’t put Xs on people and it’s not the role of the bishop to make mandates on political candidates.”
Untener reached out to the clergy and people of other faiths as no other bishop had done. When he died of complications of leukemia in 2004, eulogies came from all sides. “He was so easy to know,” said Dr. Charles Guerreno, a long-time friend and minister of First Congregational Church. “He had no pretense, he had no artifices. There was a gentle, humble spirit to him that was powerfully touched by God. He was a spiritual giant in my eyes. I shall miss him very, very much.”
Former mayor Henry Marsh said, “He was an unusual person, from his openness about that one leg to his love of hockey. We were both quite active in the community over the years…he was a very friendly, outgoing, highly intelligent and articulate person…he loved people. Anyone, regardless of denomination…I’m not Catholic and quite a few of the people who met with him aren’t Catholic. But that was the kind of man he was. He made you feel free to communicate. His loss will create a huge chasm in this community. He will be irreplaceable and not just among Catholics.”
The Rev. Roosevelt Austin, pastor emeritus of Zion Missionary Baptist Church said, “The first time I met Bishop Untener was when (the late) Reuben Daniels brought him to Zion. I invited him to come to the pulpit and when it was time to serve Holy Communion, he took part…Never before had a Catholic priest and a Baptist minister served communion together. We were friends from that day on.”
The Rev. Dr. Mark Molidrem, pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church added, “He was on the creative edge of bringing the community together. One way he did this was at the Bishop’s Breakfast meetings. I am very impressed at how he brought people together for dialogues in a positive spirit to build up the community. He wasn’t just a bishop in the church—he was a true Christian in the community.”
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