Sweet memories of Father Mike fill Alliot lobby

December 13, 2016

It just wasn’t the same without Father Mike — but at least no gingerbread roofs collapsed this year.

The late Father Mike Cronogue, SSE, a beloved campus priest who died suddenly this fall, was Saint Michael’s own living and breathing Gingerbread Man, to hear his close circle of old campus friends describe it.

For the past decade or more each year at Christmas time, Father Mike would gather at the home of former longtime Student Life leader Jenny Cernosia with Sue Kuntz of psychology, Dave Landers of psychology and often others rotating in and out with their families to decorate gingerbread houses, his friends have been recalling.

“In the early years we baked our own gingerbread houses, but then we started buying ready-built blank houses and decorated them,” says Sue Kuntz. The joke was that Father Mike wasn’t happy until every inch of his gingerbread house roof was covered with candy, and invariably, the roofs collapsed, with much hilarity ensuing.

In the sadness following Father Mike’s recent death, his friends came up with a fun way to keep those happy memories alive this year in order to bring light and healing to the season as their friend would have preferred, instead of sadness.

Monday evening’s commemorative gingerbread-house decorating extravaganza in the Alliot Hall lobby from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. was the brainchild of Robin Rhodes-Astor in Admissions, who says she had heard many entertaining stories through the years of the tradition and Father Mike’s childlike wide-eyed enthusiasm for it; so she took it upon herself to rally the old-timers for Monday’s activities.

Organizers hope it starts a new tradition –and judging from the good turnout and fun on display, it seems likely to catch on. Over a few hours, several hundred people stopped by to decorate, admire the houses, visit, or even drop off small charitable donations. Dave Landers says that part of it felt appropriate to him, since, as he recalls, this all started as a fundraiser for the MOVE office back when Ann Giombetti was its director, more than a decade ago, after Father Mike suggested bringing in the houses that he and his friends had been making to display and compare while encouraging donations.

This year, at the suggestion of Jenny Cernosia, donations from Monday’s event will be sent to Burlington’s Ronald McDonald House, which accommodates and supports families of sick kids at UVM Medical Center, given that Father Mike was a longtime dedicated volunteer there, said Lara Scott, the current MOVE director, who joined Monday’s fun early on.

“Everyone has been remembering how much Father Mike loved this,” Scott said. “He’d always be asking about the houses, sharing pictures and bragging about how much he’d squeezed onto his roof before the collapse.” Scott was happy to see that many students, along with faculty and staff, including several with their children, joined in.

Scott said Monday’s action began when Brian Roper and Ted DeGrande from the campus food-service contractors Sodexo brought over some expertly-engineered and properly baked gingerbread-house “blanks” that they donated, plus some items like icing and candy for decorations.

Sue Kuntz remembered that in the old days, “we used to even bake the houses at Jenny’s, but now we buy them put-together. It’s just been one of those things that have pulled us together for over many years just before the holiday season, and it’s fun to get together – we’d all bring whatever candy we wanted.”

Landers says as one who had known Father Mike for 34 years, Monday’s Alliot event “was wonderful for me as a chance to explain to students who he was and the significance of the gingerbread houses.” Landers said three young male students came by “and we hoodwinked them into participating — They said they’d never done anything like that, so I had a chance to introduce myself and give some history of Mike, and I think they had a ball!”

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