Servant of God Terence Cooke was known for his advocacy for the poor and most vulnerable of society.
“From the day of his ordination, a priest can never forget
that he has been called by God himself.
The priest is called to be …… a servant,… a victim,… a brother,…a listener,… a friend.”– Terence Cardinal Cooke
Born on March 1, 1921 in Manhattan, Terence Cooke was drawn early to the priesthood and entered a minor seminary of the Archdiocese of New York in 1934. After graduation from there, he moved on to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, also known as Dunwoodie.
Cooke was ordained a priest by Cardinal Spellman and his first assignment was as a chaplain for St. Agatha’s Home for Children, but soon after he was assigned to pursue additional studies at the Catholic University of America, in Washington D.C. There he received a Master of Social Work degree, which would greatly benefit him later on in his priestly ministry.
When he returned to New York, Cooke served at a few parishes and taught at Fordham University. Then in 1954 he was appointed Executive Director of the Youth Division of Catholic Charities. His dedicated work there caught the interest of Cardinal Spellman, who then brought him in to help form priestly vocations at Dunwoodie until 1956.
“Without prayer, our faith is weakened, our love grows cold, our hope becomes uncertain,” he said.
In the tumultuous year of 1968, Cooke was appointed Archbishop of New York as Spellman’s successor, and his installation took place on on April 4 — the same day Martin Luther King was assassinated and unrest broke out in major cities throughout the nation. That evening Cooke walked the streets of Harlem, talking with crowds and individuals and pleading for peace. His first official function after his installation as Archbishop was his attendance at King’s funeral, in Atlanta.
Cardinal Cooke was known as an approachable figure, gentle in demeanor, Irish and affable, but firm when needed. The New York Times reports that shortly after his installation he said, “Here I am with this sudden, awesome responsibility … only too aware of my weaknesses, struggling with my faults.”
His conciliatory manner was useful, especially as he was entrusted with the weighty of task leading the New York Archdiocese in the wake of Vatican II.
According to Our Sunday Visitor, Cooke “was generally comfortable with change in and of itself, but he preferred a gradual approach — and endured a number of awkward and sometimes embarrassing moments as a result. Once at a 1970 meeting of the Senate of Priests a young priest condemned him for not moving swiftly enough on changes that were anticipated; on another occasion a priest declined to share the Sign of Peace with him. Cardinal Cooke bore such insults patiently; it was not his style to take on, publicly or privately, those who disagreed with him.”
Besides helping the Archdiocese implement the reforms of the Council, Cooke made great strides working for the people of the city. He founded nine nursing homes, including Kateri Residence and the Jeanne Jugan Residence, and created an Archdiocesan Housing Development Program. He advocated for the poor and suffering of New York. He was instrumental in bringing Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity into Gotham, and founded Courage International, the first formal intra-church program directed toward the same-sex-attracted. He also founded Birthright as a way to bring alternatives to women considering abortion. The Inner-City Scholarship Fund and Catholic New York, the Archdiocesan newspaper, were formed under his watch.
Cardinal Cooke “not only spoke out (and spoke out strongly) against abortion, but on behalf of all human life. In his final letter for Respect Life Month, written at a time when all New Yorkers finally knew that he himself was dying, the words he chose were especially moving and dramatic: ‘The gift of life, God’s special gift, is no less beautiful when it is accompanied by illness or weakness, hunger or poverty, mental or physical handicaps, loneliness or old age. Indeed, at these times, human life gains extra splendor as it requires our special care, concern and reverence.'”
His entire life can be summed up in his episcopal motto, Fiat Voluntas Tua (“Thy Will Be Done”). Cooke worked strenuously to be faithful to the Church and to accomplish God’s will in whatever activity he was engaged in.
Cooke died in his residence in 1983 after a long battle with leukemia; he had served as Archbishop for 15 years, and he is remembered fondly in New York. His life has been an inspiration to many who had considered him a “living saint” in his lifetime, and in 1992 Cooke was recognized as a “Servant of God” by St. John Paul II.
Fr. Benedict Groeschel was the original postulator of Cooke’s cause, and after his death the duties were transferred to Rome. In 2010 the initial positio document, a summary of Cooke’s life of virtue, was presented in Rome and is currently under review. If approved, Cooke would then be declared “venerable.” According to a report in OSV:
Part of the documentation involved the story of a 28-year-old man cured of colon cancer with “no medical explanation,” according to his physicians. His family had prayed unceasingly for Cardinal Cooke’s intercession during his illness, and believed strongly that their prayers had been answered.
See more in our series on the Saints of the United States.