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‘A void that will be very hard to fill’

Harvard mourns passing of the Rev. Peter Gomes

By David Abel
Globe Staff / April 7, 2011

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There was all the pomp and circumstance the late minister prized.

Fellow professors wore the crimson gowns usually reserved for commencement. The university choir sang hymns in praise of faith and the university. There was not an empty seat at the recently restored Memorial Church, where the Rev. Peter John Gomes presided for the past four decades.

Hundreds of friends, students, and colleagues filled the Harvard sanctuary yesterday to remember Gomes, a descendant of slaves who called himself an Afro-Saxon and became the first black minister of the soaring brick church in Harvard Yard.

Gomes, who suffered a stroke late last year and died in February at age 68, was remembered for his genteel manner, the way he could captivate an audience through humor and history, and a preaching style that blended the crisp elegance of the British monarchy and the intensity of the Baptist church. More than anything, he was remembered for a mischievous love of defying labels.

“He enjoyed confounding people,’’ Governor Deval Patrick said in his eulogy at the church, recalling how Gomes was a gay, black Republican who became a towering figure at Harvard and delighted in celebrating the distinctly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant traditions as trustee emeritus of the Pilgrim Society in Plymouth, his beloved hometown.

“By refusing to be put in anybody else’s box, Peter Gomes may have been the freest man I have ever known,’’ Patrick said.

Gomes, who openly spoke about his sexual orientation, drew the ire of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which has become known for picketing military funerals to protest what its members see as the country’s progay agenda. Five of their members protested Gomes’s memorial service.

“We’re here to say Gomes split hell wide open when he died,’’ said Margie Phelps, one of several Westboro members who held up the church’s signature signs near Cambridge Common, with slogans such as “God Hates You’’ and “You’re going to hell.’’

Edwin Silverio of Salem, N.H., led a similarly small group of counterprotesters and called the church’s protest an insult.

“They say we should love thy neighbor, and they wish death upon people; does that make any sense?’’ said Silverio, whose friends held signs that read “God Loves All’’ and “Give Peace a Chance.’’

The protests were well out of earshot of Memorial Church, where a solo tenor sang a song Gomes had composed for music.

“This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise; the morning light, the lily white, declare their maker’s praise,’’ the song went. “This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair; in the rustling grass I hear him pass; he speaks to me everywhere.’’

Former Harvard president Derek Bok recalled hiring Gomes in the 1970s to be a professor of Christian morals, only a few years after Gomes, then 31, graduated from Harvard Divinity School. He said Gomes never took the easy way out of problems and always devised unique solutions, anchored to the traditions of Harvard.

“He remained completely and utterly himself,’’ Bok said, noting how he exuded “the most unusual combination of qualities: commanding voice and presence, a striking eloquence, a warm personality, a love of Harvard and of its traditions and its history, and, not least, his sheer improbable uniqueness.’’

Bok said Gomes left a deep imprint on the institution.

“He leaves a void that will be very hard to fill, someone who touched us all, and whose likes we may never see again,’’ he said.

Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust recalled how Gomes, after she became president, ambled into her office dressed in his full Harvard regalia and said in his precise diction, “Madame, I come to pledge my fealty.’’

Faust said with a smile that she had no idea how to respond.

“He was an original in so many ways,’’ she said. “It is fitting that a man who so relished tradition would become one himself. It’s so difficult for me to imagine Memorial Church or spiritual life on campus or Harvard as an institution without his presence.’’

In his remarks, Patrick recalled how he met Gomes when he was an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1970s. He said that the two remained close over the years and that Gomes counseled him not to run for governor, because he thought that if Patrick lost, it might break his spirit.

But when Patrick persisted, Gomes switched his registration from Republican to Democrat, so he could cast a helpful vote for him in the Democratic primary.

He recalled Gomes as a man who was a “lovely conversationalist,’’ a connoisseur of antiques and tales from England, and someone who enjoyed the company of “rich old ladies.’’

“We listened and we learned about life, faith, love, and loss, but mostly about how to be better people,’’ Patrick said.

He said Gomes taught him more than about having “a sense of moral rectitude and doing right by others.’’

He learned from him about “knowing yourself and trusting your own inner compass. . . . In a world full of frauds and pretenders, of showmen masquerading as teachers and preachers and panderers passing themselves off as leaders, Peter was a man of true courage,’’ Patrick said. “He was himself, without labels and without apologies.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a listing in a program published by Harvard University for the memorial service for the Rev. Peter Gomes, the Globe mistakenly reported that the minister wrote a song titled "This is My Father's World." The song, which was written by Maltbie D. Babcock, was composed to music by Gomes.