TAMPA — Photographs, letters and newspaper clippings tell the story of Pastor John R. Peterson, rector emeritus at St. John's Episcopal Church in Hyde Park.
Five decades and three parishes ago, Peterson joined the priesthood to serve others.
Only recently, as Peterson's son sifted through keepsakes in his father's home office, did the depths of that service become clear. He found papers telling of Peterson's work as a civil rights advocate in the 1960s, his relationship with NASA and time spent in the nation's capital.
Most important, the clippings illuminated how Peterson transformed St. John's into the 17th largest Anglican parish in the United States.
"I never knew he worked in President (Richard) Nixon's White House or that he did an invocation for Ronald Reagan," said Lee Peterson, 43, the youngest of Peterson's four sons. "For the family not to have known these things, it is a testament to the type of man my father is. He doesn't boast."
Today Peterson, 77, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination with his sons Dan, Drew, Mark and Lee, and his wife, Kay. Friends and community will gather for a service and reception at St. John's. Attendees will share stories honoring their former rector. Though Peterson retired from the parish in 2000, he remains a legacy there.
"I'm a little embarrassed by all the attention but I am grateful," he said.
While at the church, Peterson oversaw more than 700 baptisms, 250 weddings and 200 funerals. He partnered with ministries to serve the homeless, worked closely with the Tampa Chamber of Commerce and grew St. Johns to exceed 2,000 members. When parishioners missed Mass, he noticed and welcomed them back upon return.
"It's amazing to realize how influential he was in people's lives," Lee Peterson said. "He didn't want to be the bishop or work in administration. He didn't want to sit in an office. He wanted to be in the community."
Born Sept. 2, 1936, in Detroit, Peterson worked as a Good Humor ice cream man and at a boys home before taking an interest in the ministry. He studied psychology at Michigan State and later attended Virginia Theological Seminary, graduating with a master of divinity degree in 1962. He first served as a deacon at St. Paul's Episcopal in Lansing, Mich.
Peterson later accepted a rector position at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Barrington, Ill., where he started a day school and upped membership to more than 1,000 from 46. During his years there, he worked for the Christian Action Ministry under Nixon. He started a town hall series that attracted speakers including Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke and Roots author Alex Haley.
The Rev. Canon Risk, a former assistant at St. Mark's, recalls when the bishop denied ordination to one of Peterson's female seminary students, Jan Lee Walker. Peterson went to the bishop to argue on Walker's behalf. He handled the situation with dignity and resolve, Risk wrote in a recent letter.
"A few months later, Jan was ordained in the Diocese of Chicago," Risk wrote. She was one of the first women ordained.
In 1979, Peterson came to St. John's excited to embrace a new community. At the time, the church struggled with funding. Peterson started capital campaigns to strengthen the parish and made improvements to the existing day school.
Through the years, he worked on city and county commissions, and served on the boards of several charities, including United Way. He helped form the Hyde Park 7, a group of churches that provided food and clothing to families in need.
"I think we are called to minister in the community not just within church walls," he said. "I never wanted just to stand before the people. I wanted to be with them."
In retirement, Peterson continues to do for others. He assisted St. John's in raising more than $4 million to open a middle school separate from its existing day school. He helped oversee the building of a new chapel.
For 10 years, he worked part-time as a chaplain for Princess Cruises, touring the world with his wife.
Peterson still performs baptisms and visits the sick. He is a regular volunteer St. Joseph's Hospital. He prays with whoever asks.
"At the end of the day, if I can be half the man that he was, I would be more than pleased," Lee Peterson said.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.