Dignitaries and University leaders hailed the late Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes as a public figure who left an indelible impression on all those who met him and whose example had profoundly impacted the world at the University’s official memorial service for Gomes yesterday morning in Memorial Church.
With the Church’s pews filled to capacity, former University President Derek C. Bok, current President Drew G. Faust, and Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78 shared their personal recollections and thoughts on the life and legacy of Gomes, who served for 35 years as the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister at Memorial Church.
Throughout the service, the speakers depicted Gomes as a man who encouraged those around him to stay true to themselves—a lesson he embodied in his everyday life.
“By his example, Peter taught us all something about integrity,” Patrick said. “Not just in the sense of moral rectitude and doing right by others, but in the sense of knowing your self and trusting your moral compass.”
Gomes was often defined by those who did not know him by his unique public identity as a gay black Republican minister at Harvard,
Still, the speakers said these identifications did not limit him.
He was “an African American from Plymouth, a Baptist at Memorial Church, a Republican in Cambridge, out of the closet, and out of the box,” Faust said. “I always sensed that he prized these antinomies and cultivated them. There seemed to be a bit of wry delight when to someone perplexed by his character, Peter would simply say he was who he was and it always made sense to him.”
Said Patrick, “By refusing to be put in anybody else’s box, Peter Gomes may have been the freest man I have ever known.”
The speakers also honed in on Gomes’ direct impact at Harvard. The Reverend Professor was influential at creating the Harvard Foundation as an organization that brought people of diverse cultural backgrounds together, according to Bok. Faust, along with others, credited Gomes with allowing the Memorial Church to maintain a positive presence on campus despite the tumultuous environment at Harvard in the 1970s.
“He was a Christian figure at a 400 year-old Christian institution that was on the brink of renouncing that,” said James Y. Stern ’01, an usher at the service. Stern is also a former Crimson news executive.
Faust also recalled how Gomes’ openness and his desire to reach out to others left a lasting impression on the Harvard community.
“Peter said with a smile, ‘It is so hard to love others. They are so unlovely, so unloveable.’” she said. “But of course Peter loved so freely and he was so loved in return.”
Despite the somber occasion for the gathering, the service did not lack moments of levity. Faust received roaring laughter when she described the congratulations that Gomes offered her upon her appointment as President of Harvard in 2007.
Faust recalled that an ornately robed Gomes approached her and said—in his typical playful formality—“Madam, I come to pledge my fealty.”
Acting Pusey Minister Wendel W. “Tad” Meyer addressed the crowd briefly to share that a new organ would be installed in the church bearing Gomes’ name along with that of Charles Brenton Fisk ’49.
Gomes had dedicated much of his time to raising money for the restoration of the organ in recent years. Continuing this effort, Meyer asked the service’s attendees to contribute generously to the project, which he said still needs to raise 2.5 million dollars.
Meyer also read a message sent by Charles, Prince of Wales. According to the note, Prince Charles had been impressed by Gomes’ character on the few occasions that they met.
While the search for a new minister proceeds, individuals associated with the University said they agree that it will be impossible to fill the shoes left by Gomes.
“It’s hard to imagine Harvard without Peter,” Faust said.
—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at email@example.com.
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