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Thomas M. Ferrick, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard for more than 30 years, died on Dec. 30 in Cambridge, Mass.
Ferrick began his tenure at Harvard in 1974 with the founding of the first university Humanist chaplaincy in the world.
Ferrick, who had grown up as an orphan with his sister Dorothy E. Cogan, spent his early life as an active member of the Catholic Church. After graduating from Holy Cross College in 1951, Ferrick went on to be ordained as a priest and served as the Catholic Chaplain at Dartmouth College.
Ferrick said he first began to question his Catholic faith long before he came to Harvard.
“One doesn’t lose faith overnight in the religion that supported him and inspired him through all his mature years,” Ferrick told the Boston Globe in 1973. “It erodes, I think, by virtue of the keen observation of life and the judgment that no earthly authority can assume so wide a competence as the Catholic Church did.”
For Ferrick, an openly gay man, the Catholic Church’s position on many social issues, such as contraception and homosexuality puzzled him, said Joe F. Gerstein, president of the Greater Boston Humanists and long time friend of Ferrick.
“[Tom was] completely disillusioned by the political shenanigans…within the priesthood, administration, and so forth,” Gerstein said.
Ferrick left the priesthood in 1969 and, according to Gerstein, was excommunicated by the Catholic Church years later.
When Ferrick came to Harvard as the Humanist chaplain, he did not allow his own qualms with religious life to adversely affect his work and his mission to promote open religious and Humanist discussion at Harvard. Rather, he encouraged religious diversity at the University, which previously only recognized chaplaincies for the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic faiths.
“[Ferrick was] really active in getting religious representatives into the chaplaincy,” Gerstein said.
Friends of Ferrick said that although he did not actively seek influence or publicity, he nonetheless had a profound effect on the religious and Humanist life at Harvard and in the greater Boston area.
“Tom was given the chance to be a pioneer because he asked the University for no money, and because it was assumed the idea of a chaplain for atheists and agnostics would fail,” current Harvard Humanist Chaplain and Vice President of the Harvard Chaplains Greg M. Epstein wrote in The Huffington Post.
That assumption was swept away as Ferrick gained admirers. John L. Loeb ’24, who read about the chaplain’s work in a Harvard Gazette article, included an endowment of $800,000 for the Humanist chaplaincy in a $70 million donation Loeb and his wife granted the University in the early 1990s.
Ferrick handed over the Humanist chaplaincy to Epstein in 2005.
Epstein, who said that his career as a Humanist chaplain began with the role that Ferrick played for him as a mentor, added that Ferrick would be impressed with the increasing presence of humanism on campus and the diversity of religious chaplains that the University now has.
“Tom would have been shocked by the level of activity that we are having,” Epstein said.
A memorial service will be held for Ferrick on Sunday, March 2 at 1:30 p.m. at the recently opened Humanist Hub at 30 JFK St.
—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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