Posted by: Titus Presler | March 1, 2011

Remembering Peter Gomes, mentor and friend

Today I am grieving the death yesterday of the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, who ministered in Harvard’s Memorial Church for forty years, 1970-2010.  Peter has been a considerable presence and influence in USAmerican Christianity, and here I reflect on his presence and influence in the lives of myself and my wife Jane Butterfield.

It was as a spiritual guide in preaching and counselor in conversation that Peter’s presence and influence have been decisive for us.  Singing as an undergraduate in Memorial Church’s University Choir, I was engrossed in the marvels of Heinrich Schütz and Josquin des Prez under the direction of the peerless John Ferris, but indifferent to the worship and preaching.  Then a new assistant minister arrived, and I began listening up – closely and reflectively – and I was inspired.  It was Peter Gomes, two years out of Harvard Divinity School and newly arrived from chaplaincy at the Tuskegee Institute.

Peter’s great gift as a preacher was to bring passionate conviction that God has something to say to us through scripture – practically any scripture! – together with penetrating attention to the cultural environment – our cultural environment – in which the biblical word is read and into which God’s word is preached.  Peter took delight in tweaking our cultural shibboleths with a winning combination of insight and mocking humor.  Yet there was nothing cynical in his preaching or lecturing, for he was utterly convinced of two things: humanity’s longing for God and God’s longing for humanity.  In his preaching he undertook to bring those two yearners into encounter and conversation with each other.

As a pastor, Peter brought his historical sensibility to bear in treasuring the biographies of all whose lives he touched.  Once you told him where you were from and who your forebears were, once you shared with him what had brought you to faith or kept you from faith, what had prompted you to cross the threshold of Memorial Church, or not – once you told him that he knew it and remembered it.  And then down through the years he would weave your biography with his own and those of others.  He would discern the hidden connections, the promptings one was scarcely aware of.  He would note wryly the odd juxtapositions and the points at which you should have known better – and at least have consulted him! Overall, he was convinced that God was up to something in your life and, indeed, he would offer this and that insight to prove it.

My first conversation with Peter was in 1970 at Lowell House at Harvard, where Peter was a fellow.  He sat down at lunch with my friend Tom Mathewson and me on a day shortly after Thanksgiving.  After some chatting about Memorial Church and the choir, Peter asked us where we had spent Thanksgiving.  When my turn came, I said, “Plymouth.”  “Plymouth?!” he exclaimed, “And what drew you to Plymouth?”  “Well,” I replied, my girlfriend lives in Plymouth, and she invited me to Thanksgiving with her family.”  What part of Plymouth, he wanted to know.  “A village called Chiltonville,” I said, “a lovely and very rural part of the town.”  Peter’s eyes were literally getting wider.  “I know Chiltonville and its people very well,” he declared in his inimitable accent, which was partly southeastern Massachusetts and partly Boston Brahmin.  “What is the name of your girlfriend?”  “Jane Butterfield,” I replied.  “Jane Butterfield!” he expostulated.  “I know Jane Butterfield, and her sister Sally, whose class was close to mine in high school, and her parents and her brothers!”

That conversation began a lifelong friendship, and a renewed friendship for Jane.  It was during Peter’s premarital counseling with us that we came to know his mother Orissa, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music and the granddaughter of slaves (Peter’s Cape Verdean father had died earlier).  Orissa would make tea for the three of us for our Monday afternoon chats.  Peter preached and officiated at our wedding, held in April 1974 in the First Church of Plymouth, for at that time I was reporting for the town newspaper, The Old Colony Memorial, and Jane was editing Cranberries magazine.  “Now I’m sure all of you are asking,” Peter intoned from the pulpit, “Will this marriage last?”  He went on to express confidence that it would indeed be sustained over time by not only our love but by our shared Christian faith.  And that has proved true.

Peter’s preaching was compelling enough that for awhile Jane and I traveled up to Cambridge from Plymouth on Sundays for church – a 40-minute drive – but presently we became involved in a local congregation.  My sense of call to ordained ministry was the next occasion for counsel with Peter.  He was enthusiastically supportive.  In the summers we would attend the afternoon services at South Pond Chapel, a tiny summer-only chapel of First Baptist Church, one whose life Peter had shepherded since his teenage years.  People would call out hymns during the “seasons of song” Peter designed into each service.  It was on a sweltering afternoon in the summer of 1975 that I preached my first sermon, and it was under Peter’s supervision.  I took as my text Jesus’ stilling of the storm in Mark’s gospel.  More counsel followed about which seminary to attend, and it was on Peter’s advice that I spent two years at an evangelical seminary that he thought would nurture as well as challenge my faith.

Peter preached at my ordination to the priesthood in 1979, at Christ Church, Hamilton, Mass.  A memorable line from that sermon: “And, Titus, about committees: Remember this – they met before you came, and they will meet after you leave.  Take care how much time you spend in committees!”  That was also the occasion of the baptism of one of our children, and we were always touched at how Peter knew and followed the stories of all our children: Emma, Charlotte, Titus and Amos.  He preached at the 1991 installation of Jane and me as co-rectors of St. Peter’s, Cambridge, where his mother had been confirmed as an Episcopalian in 1914, though she later became Baptist.  He preached there again on Christmas Eve 2001, and great was the merriment around the fire and dinner at the rectory that evening.  Peter attended Jane’s ordination at St. Paul’s, Dedham, in 1989, and my last service at St. Peter’s in April 2002.

In recent years it was a joy to teach preaching with Peter at Harvard Divinity School, have him deliver the Baccalaureate sermon at General Seminary, and have him lecture at the Seminary of the Southwest, where I was president.  My mother died in Fargo during that visit, and it was a great blessing to have our lifelong pastor there for that grief.  Along the way there have been many chats and get-togethers.  And the most entertaining formal dinners I’ve ever attended – Peter’s famous “Sunday Lunch” at Sparks House in honor of, say, Robert Runcie or the late Nathan Pusey, the high point of which was always Peter rising, glass in hand, to toast the honored guest and the occasion with the most exquisite and humorous tribute imaginable.  He was a joy to watch.

I last saw Peter on 24 October 2010.  He’d invited me to preach at Memorial Church, one of several such occasions.  He was in good form, though showing physical strain.  After service he invited daughter Charlotte and me to lunch with him at the Faculty Club.  As always, the conversation was rich and diverse.  It was about 3:30 by the time we walked him back to Sparks House.  He spoke of how deeply tired he felt inside, and how much he was looking forward to retirement in 2012, when he would have been the Minister in Memorial Church for 40 years.  In the event, he was at Memorial Church for 40 years: 1970-2010.

An abiding image of Peter in the later period of his life is from Oceanside, the seaside mansion overlooking Plymouth Harbor that he acquired in recent years. One evening a couple of years ago Jane and I were to take him out to dinner – it was the day after Thanksgiving or the day after Christmas, something like that.  We went to the door and rang the bell.  No answer.  Again, but no answer.  I knocked loudly, but no answer.  So we prowled around the side of the house.  There in the distance was Peter in the gazebo.  He had his coat and hat on, and was leaning on his cane.  He sat motionless, staring out to sea.  He looked ready for dinner.  He looked equally ready for God.  He later said that was his fondest wish for retirement, to sit there and look at the ocean.

Everyone who knew Peter Gomes knows he was utterly and unshakably confident in “the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” – not only now on earth, but in the life to come.  Peter believed in heaven, in the eternal embrace of God and the communion of the saints in glory.  He is there now.

We miss him intensely.

Rest eternal grant to Peter, O Lord;

And let light perpetual shine upon him.

May his soul, and the souls of all the departed,

through the mercy of God, rest in peace.



  1. We thank God for the witness of Fr Gomes.

  2. Dear Titus, Thank you for this post. It is a wonderful remembrance. I did not know Rev. Gomes well but I remember with great joy singing Sir John Stainer’s Crucifixion on a Palm Sunday Evening at St. Peter’s under his direction. I don’t remember what year that was. Matthew invited him. I love what Peter says about the hymns in the passion as part of the invitation to congregation to join in the singing — he says that they are not hors d’oeuvres but the main course. He also mentions that his mother was confirmed by Bishop Lawrence at St Peter’s in 1914. I had not thought of that occasion for a long time. It’s nice that I can go back and listen to it. The world will indeed miss the good reverend. Peace, Lois

    • Dear Lois! So very good to hear from you! Yes, I heard about the Stainer extravaganza with Peter and Matthew – it happened after I left, yet another visitation of Peter to St. Peter’s. So good to know there’s a recording – possible to get a copy? Thanks for supplying the date of Orissa’s confirmation at St. Peter’s. We miss you and Bill. Blessings, Titus

  3. What a really lovely tribute. He was so very good at reading people, because he cared about them. I remember once at HDS, I was speaking with him about being from an evangelical background and a Southerner and he peered at me through his glasses and said, “I imagine you are a little bit sad, and a little bit lonely.” Which was exactly true, though I had been loathe to admit it. And he was always a touchstone when I was a little sad or lonely. He is now part of that great cloud of witnesses of which he often spoke.

    • Thanks for your comment, Shannon. I can hear him saying that to you. And it relates to his advising me toward another seminary. In retrospect, I’m not sure how right he was in thinking HDS might irreversibly erode my faith. After all, he had come through it all right! Yet it was a measure of his affection and concern. And certainly where I went provided lots of nurture that has stayed with me ever since, and it was a delight then to transfer to General Seminary for the Episcopal and Anglican formation. Yes, he is now in that cloud of witnesses.

  4. Titus, a beautiful remembrance of a wonderful soul. Thank you for the painted pictures of a man in all his glory.

    • Thanks, Jim. Always good to hear from you, and I hope you and the family are well. T.

  5. I remember him from your ordination.

    • Yes, David, and for that occasion you calligraphed the most elegant ordination certificate I’ve ever seen in the Episcopal Church. Of course, I continue to treasure it. The ordaining bishop was the late Ben Arnold, a very kindly soul who had played a pivotal role in my ever being ordained at all. With continuing gratitude to all of you who played a role, Titus

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