My Ministry in Glenmary Mission Areas

Posted: 5/9/2016

Glenmary Father Gerald Peterson

(Editor’s Note: Now age 86, Father Gerald “Pete” Peterson has been a Glenmarian for more than six decades, serving as the pastor of several missions and in other roles.)

I was ordained a Glenmary priest on May 20, 1956, Pentecost Sunday. For my first five years as a Glenmary missioner, I served as associate pastor and then pastor of the mission in Appalachia, Va. The Mass was still being celebrated in Latin and the altar faced the wall. Our Catholic Church seemed foreign to many of the non-Catholics in the mission area. But there were a few Catholics who were second- or third-generation Polish and Lebanese immigrants. At that time, it was very hard to interest the local non-immigrants in the Catholic faith. Too many of them had misconceptions about Catholics and held prejudices against the Church.

From 1961 to 1966, I was assigned to serve as assistant novice master at our novitiate in Aurora, Ind. Among my responsibilities was teaching courses in the spiritual life and in liturgy. I also assisted on Sundays at the local St. Mary Parish. Vatican II began in 1962. As soon as its changes were approved, our novitiate chapel was one of the first worship spaces in which the altar faced toward the people and English was used in the Mass. I truly feel that our worship came more to life with those changes.

Later on I was assigned to Dahlonega, Ga. (1966-75), as the second pastor of the Catholic mission there. During my nine years in the area, the mission more than doubled in membership. Sixty-three people over age 6 joined the Church during this time.

My next ministry assignment with Glenmary was in Shelbyville, Tenn. (1975-78), where the town of 13,000 was nearly twice the size of many other towns in which Glenmary has had missions. I pastored the local mission for three years and had 20 converts who joined the Church—all during my third Easter Vigil there! I also served as mission pastor in Clarkesville, Ga. (1978-88), where I felt at home in the Smoky Mountains. I did a lot of outreach to inactive Catholics and many home visitations. The church grew steadily and, after eight years, a second Mass had to be added.

After my time in Clarkesville, Glenmary sent me for 10 weeks of Spanish-language training in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Learning a new language and culture at age 59 was more difficult than I expected, and unfortunately the little Latin I remembered from seminary didn’t help. My new fluency in Spanish did help prepare me to take on new mission assignments and to serve the growing immigrant communities in our mission areas.

From 1989 to 2001, I was sent to the Glenmary mission in Winfield, Ala. It was a challenging mission in that it had not seen much growth for 15-20 years: it had remained a congregation of 50-60 members. With the help of parishioners and a large number of home visits, we grew by about 10 new members each year I was there. When I finally left Winfield, plans had been approved for church expansion and the money had been raised. In fact, the lines had been drawn on the ground for the outside dimensions of the new construction. 

In 2001, I moved over into Mississippi and took status as a Glenmary senior member at age 71. For the next 12 years, I celebrated two Masses each Sunday at Glenmary missions and worked closely with the lay ecclesial ministers. Generally, one of my Masses was in English and one in Spanish. During the week, I spent quite a bit of time practicing my Spanish as I tried to reach out to the Latino people moving into the area.

From 2013 to 2015 I lived in Kingsport, Tenn., in a home donated to Glenmary for use by senior members. And then on December 7, 2015, I became a fully retired senior member living at the residence at Glenmary headquarters in Cincinnati.

At age 86, I know I’m slowing down. But I look back with a great deal of satisfaction and joy on my 64 years as a Glenmary missioner. I can say with certainty that this vocation has suited me well. I hope I have helped many people live closer to God and the Church.

There are plenty of opportunities for young men entering Glenmary today to do the same.