Father Peter J. Scanlon, who was well-known for his ministry to college students and firefighters, is being mourned by many who were blessed by his ministry.
Bishop McManus was principal celebrant at a Mass of Christian burial Tuesday at Immaculate Conception Church for Father Scanlon, 84, who died Sept. 24.
Burial was in St. John Cemetery.
Father Scanlon was born Sept. 2, 1931, in Worcester, the son of Peter and Julia J. (O’Sullivan) Scanlon.
He graduated from St. John’s High School and attended the College of the Holy Cross from 1949 to 1951. He studied for the priesthood at St. Mary Seminary, Baltimore from 1951 to 1957.
He was ordained a priest on May 30, 1957, by Bishop John J. Wright in St. Paul Cathedral. He served as associate pastor at St. Mary Parish, Southbridge; St. Mary Parish, Shrewsbury; Ascension Parish, Worcester; St. Patrick Parish, Rutland, and Immaculate Conception Parish, Worcester.
In September 1961, while at Immaculate Conception, he was named campus minister at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In September 1967, he was named campus minister full time at WPI and Becker Junior College.
He was appointed to full-time ministry in the Newman Apostolate on Sept. 1, 1967. On July 15, 1968, he was named diocesan director of the Newman Apostolate, at that time a newly created division of the diocesan Youth Department, and vicar of all Newman communities on college campuses in the diocese.
He was a founder of the Catholic College Ministry Association and, from 1971 to 1977, was the New England representative of the diocesan directors of campus ministry to the United States Catholic Conference.
He served as a member of the diocesan Board of Education, the diocesan Collaborative of Education and Ministry and a trustee of Becker College.
On Aug. 28, 1976 he was named pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Worcester. In June 1983, he again was assigned to full-time campus ministry. He retired on July 1, 2006.
For many years he served as chaplain for the Worcester Fire Department. He first was appointed assistant chaplain in 1962 by Bishop Bernard J. Flanagan. Within a week of his appointment, according to a story in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Father Scanlon, “with no training, faced a fire chaplain’s worst nightmare — dealing with the emotional toll wrought by the death of a firefighter in the line of duty.”
A 27-year-old firefighter, married just six months earlier, died in a furniture store fire on Southbridge Street. Father Scanlon said it was the first of many sad events he experienced during his 46 years as chaplain.
When six Worcester firefighters died on Dec. 3, 1999, in the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire, Father Scanlon went to the fire scene despite the fact that he was on medical leave because of knee surgery.
According to a Catholic Free Press story Father William F. Sanders, former chaplain for the Fitchburg Fire Department, said that when the city asked for a place for the families of firefighters could gather, Father Scanlon said “you can have my place.”
His “place” was St. Stephen’s Church on Hamilton Street.
Families “came in droves,” Father Scanlon told The Catholic Free Press. They came to find out if their son had died. Or if their father had died. For most the news was good. But not for all. And soon it was a tragedy that all shared.
Deputy Fire Chief John Sullivan said that, at Father Scanlon’s burial in St. John Cemetery, “I had the honor of presenting Father Pete’s helmet from that fire to his sister Peggyann.” Miss Scanlon is former assistant City Manager for Worcester.
The helmet was speckled with tar and other debris “that rained down on everybody there,” Deputy Chief Sullivan said. “It bears the battle scars of that fire to this day,”
In the years Father Scanlon served as chaplain, Deputy Chief Sullivan said, generations of firefighters have served in the department. There are firefighters now whose grandfathers were firefighters while Father Scanlon was chaplain, he said.
He said Father Scanlon was a brother, a friend, a counselor
who was there to listen and “very much a parish priest no matter in what capacity he was acting.”
“He transcended denominations,” Deputy Chief Sullivan said. “He was a member of the Fire Department family.”
He said that it is important in a para-military organization to have trust.
“He was one of us,” Deputy Chief Sullivan said.
He said it was personally comforting to him to have Father Scanlon at the fire scene in 1999. He said Father Scanlon’s reassuring nature gave him hope that there would be healing and a better time to come.
“His influence and abiding nature will always be with us,” he said.
Father Scanlon’s ministry at WPI was remembered this week in a news release from the school. It said that the school’s first Catholic chaplain was “a joyous and comforting presence for several generations of WPI students…. ‘Father Pete,’ as he was widely known, is warmly remembered as a welcoming and supportive friend by alumni of all faiths.”
Students turned to him for assistance with problems off all kinds. He was known for providing aid, even when their needs were unconventional, the news release stated.
“I see my role as a supportive one,” he once told WPI Journal. “The students indicate to me what they want to do, and I try to help them.”
When some early women students felt the need for a sisterhood in a mostly male school, Father Scanlon served as their adviser in establishing the Gamma Iota Chapter of the Phi Sigma Sigma. When the sorority wanted to participate in a beer can recycling contest sponsored by the Miller Brewing Company, he sanctioned using the Collegiate Religious Center as a collection point. “Everybody won!” he said, pointing out that the students earned points towards prizes, and the campus got a good cleanup, according to the news release.
When the flag pole in front of the Alpha Epsilon Phi fraternity house was leaning, a distress cry went out to “Father Abraham” — as the Jewish students affectionately dubbed their campus priest. Father Scanlon came to their aid — calling on his fire department connections to have Worcester’s aerial ladder truck No. 2 dispatched to the scene. In short order the problem was amended.
As a chaplain, he renewed and deepened the faith of some and challenged others to take a second look at the views they formed in high school. He spoke of an age of renewal for the Church, after a period of rejection during the 1960s, the news release stated.
“We have become a parish to the students on campus,” he said. “The future looks very hopeful to me.”
WPI Transformations, a publication at the college, asked alumni to share their memories of Father Scanlon after he retired as chaplain in 2006.
“He was a huge presence (literally!) who encouraged me to think about the intertwined topics of academics, community awareness, and religious beliefs. His voice boomed in the basement of Alden Memorial, echoing off the marble walls, making us all pay strict attention,” a 1978 graduate wrote.
A 2003 alumnus wrote, “At WPI, I began to discover myself and my religion. Father Scanlon would send out a weekly email that revolved around his Sunday morning readings and homilies. Never has one email message had such an impact on a person as that. He related everything to life at WPI and in turn gave it a new meaning, every week.”
Father Scanlon was an active fan of Holy Cross sports teams. He and his sister were regulars at Holy Cross women’s basketball games and Father Scanlon on occasion could be heard suggesting to an official that he or she had perhaps gotten a call wrong
In addition to his sister, Father Scanlon leaves his brother priests and many friends. His sister extended a special thank you to the staff in the Emergency Room and the Intensive Care Unit – Medical at UMass Memorial University Campus for their compassionate care and kindness.
Donations in memory of Father Scanlon may be made to the Clergy Benefit Plan, 40 Brattle St., Worcester, MA 01606-2511.
Kelly Funeral Home, 154 Lincoln St., was in charge of arrangements.