A faded portrait of the late Reverend Peter J. Gomes looked out at Memorial Church last Thursday, dimly illuminated in the glow of candles held by those who came to pay their respects. The multitude of parishioners, friends, colleagues, and students sat shoulder to shoulder in the pews, honoring a man who has become a spiritual icon at the University.
And yet Gomes, who died on Feb. 28, was not just the Minister of Memorial Church or a world-renowned preacher. He fulfilled a myriad of roles, simultaneously serving as a religious leader, an academic instructor, and a remarkable friend to many.
“He was a man who was able to transcend, when necessary, any identity,” says Gomes’ longtime friend S. Allen Counter Jr., Director of the Harvard Foundation and a professor of neurology.
Gomes held his position as Minister for the past 35 years, during which he spoke at many University events, advised on dissertations at the Divinity School, and trained upcoming seminarians.
“He asked people to discover their own ministry,” says Reverend Janet Hatfield Legro, who was hired by Gomes on the spot as a seminarian after a particularly good waitressing performance one Sunday lunch. Legro became the Assistant Minister in Memorial Church in the late 1990s and now preaches at Harvard one Sunday each year.
Legro emphasizes the seriousness with which Gomes viewed worship and the offering of religious guidance. “Worship had to have integrity,” she explains. Gomes often reminded her that it didn’t matter if she was preaching to two or 2,000, insisting on the need to “take care with what you do because the person you’re affecting is God’s beloved child.”
Outside of his role at Memorial Church, Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at the Harvard Divinity School, taught Religion 42: “The Christian Bible and its Interpretations” and Religion 1513: “The History of Harvard and its Presidents.”
“He was spiritual, religious, in a very idiosyncratic way,” remembers Ari R. Hoffman ’10, who took Religion 42 his freshman fall. “He kind of modeled a sense in which you could be yourself, in all of your ridiculousness and absurdity, but still reach for something greater.”
Hoffman describes walking through the yard with Gomes one day after class. “We were talking about different professions and what one would go into. He asked me what I was interested in doing, and I said, ‘I have no idea.’ He said, ‘You know Ari, the great thing about being a clergyman is that you hold people’s eternal souls in the palm of your hand,’” Hoffman chuckles.
Teaching allowed Gomes to extend his influence beyond Harvard’s religious institutions—an opportunity he greatly valued. Every Wednesday afternoon he hosted a tea in his home, a mansion located behind Memorial Hall. The teas were open to the entire Harvard community, and students were frequently among the attendees.
“He felt they kept him young,” says Stephen P. Shoemaker of Gomes’ relationship with the undergraduates. Shoemaker is a teaching assistant in the Study of Religion who co-taught both of Gomes’ classes. “He enjoyed the stimulation of their brilliance and their engagement with their material. But, even socially, he really appreciated the opportunity to be with them.”
Shoemaker recalls one particular spring, after he and Gomes had administered their final exam, when he received a call from Gomes. “‘Stephen,’” Gomes said on the other line in his low, commanding voice, “‘your presence is required at the Kong.’” When Shoemaker arrived at the Hong Kong Restaurant, he found Gomes sitting with 15 students around a table of Scorpion Bowls. “The professor is diving right in,” Shoemaker laughs, “hands me a straw, and says, ‘I don’t know what they put in these, but it’s delightful!’”
This ability to relax and enjoy himself in almost any situation was an integral part of Gomes’ personality. With his far-reaching sense of humor, he managed to relate to people of all ages, cultures, and religions. “It was a gift that he could look at a situation, see what was humorous and how to present it that way so that everyone listening understood what was funny,” Shoemaker reflects.
Legro recounts the panic attacks she experienced each Sunday as the clock crept toward the starting time of the 11 o’clock service, with Gomes still absent. “But he would appear without fail, bursting through the doors of the preachers room of The Memorial Church, fully robed, sermon in hand, exclaiming, ‘Are you ready, Janet? Are you ready to worship?’” Legro, close to tears, laughs at the memory. “He shortened my life for making me worry like that every Sunday.”
Legro wasn’t the only one at the butt of Gomes’ jokes. “He had a wonderful way to make people feel like you were on the inside of the joke,” remembers Andrew F. Saxe ’84. “And then you’d find out he had a wickedly funny imitation of you.”
Luke L. Sperduto ’11, who admired Gomes from afar, called the Reverend a “badass,” and commended him for not taking himself too seriously. “That is such a lesson that Harvard needs to remember at all times.”
Gomes’ exceptional love of life and of people is part of what made him such a remarkable individual. “He gobbled up life,” Legro remembers. “He lived a thousand years in 68.”