By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
Hundreds of parishioners, past and present, and those who drew comfort from Father Leon S. Buni’s ministry as a hospital chaplain gathered to celebrate his life and legacy Jan. 30 in Holy Innocents Church, Neptune.
Father Buni, 69, who died Jan. 24 in Toms River from an illness, was remembered during a Mass of Christian Burial celebrated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., and concelebrated by upward of 40 diocesan priests.
“So many loved Father Leon,” said Bishop O’Connell, noting that Father Buni had expressed the hope that should he recover, he would “be able to spend the rest of his life in service to the sick.”
That news came as no surprise to those who knew and loved him, including his sister Mary Lou, and her daughter, Christine Hughes. Both reflected on the overwhelming outpouring of presence and emotion from the community.
“There are no words to express how amazing this was and how giving,” Hughes said as she stood with her daughter, Hailey, 7, and members of the family.
“He was so caring and giving of himself, and he helped a lot of people,” Mary Lou said. “We have been so happy to hear from people how he helped them.”
Man of the People
During the funeral, Father Buni was lauded as a devout, joyful and caring priest who lived out the call of Jesus to be a “fisher of men,” not only in the parishes he served throughout the Diocese but in the hospitals, nursing homes and prisons of its four counties as well.
His gifts were recalled in a homily given by Father John Bambrick, pastor of St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson, who was a seminarian when the two first met and would, in time, become a lifelong friend.
“God creates each person as unique,” Father Bambrick said in his homily. “Father Buni was more unique than most. He dropped everything to follow the way of the Cross. He came from a medical family, and his father was a very gifted surgeon. His dad may have hoped he would become a doctor.”
Instead, he chose the priesthood and served in parishes throughout the Diocese from the time he arrived until his passing. Those parishes included: St. Dominic, Brick; St. Mary, Middletown; St. Mary of the Lake, Lakewood; St. Barnabas, Bayville; St. Raphael (now part of St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish) Hamilton; St. Joseph, Toms River; Christ the King, Long Branch; St. Joan of Arc, Marlton, and Holy Innocents, where he was assigned July 1.
Early on, Father Buni found a way to meld his love of parish service with medicine by becoming a chaplain, said Father Bambrick, who noted that Father Buni had served in that capacity in nearly every hospital in the Diocese and many other health care facilities as well.
“He learned how to comfort people. He excelled at being a chaplain and comforting the sick and dying,” said Father Bambrick, adding that Father Buni also made a point of visiting those in prison.
With his abundant gift for preaching, storytelling, singing and celebrating family and faith, he excelled in parish life as well, Father Bambrick said.
Father Buni, he said, understood with utmost certainty what it means to come to the table of the Lord. “He understood that Christ wanted us to eat. He left us his Body and his Blood, and he left priests to make sure the faithful were fed. He loved to gather with people.”
At the Ready
Father Buni was born in 1950 in Panay Capiz, Philippines, and prepared for the priesthood in St. Pius X Seminary, Roxas City, and St. Vincent Seminary, both in the Philippines.
He was ordained a priest March 19, 1975, in Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Roxas City, by Bishop Antonio F. Frondosa and served in the Philippines until 1986.
Father Bambrick thanked members of Father Buni’s large family who had traveled from Canada and California for the funeral Mass, acknowledging their “loss of this wonderful man” and gratitude that “you gave him to us.”
Ida Dionaldo recalled first meeting Father Buni 15 years ago as a nurse in what was then Kimball Medical Center in Lakewood. Over the years, “he became like family to us,” said Dionaldo, a member of St. Monica Parish, Jackson.
She spoke about the depth of his faith, especially in moments of crisis in medical situations.
Father Leon, she said, was “such a very Catholic person. … When we worked in the emergency room … he always told everyone to call him anytime, day or night. He was always available for everyone. I feel sad that he is gone, yet happy. He is with God, and he is watching over us.”