By: Dominique Johnson
Reaching a 50th anniversary is a rare feat these days and for Father Peter Gorges who will celebrate his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination on May 29th, his vocation has been fulfilling.
While growing up in the Bronx, New York in the 30s through 50s, the idea of becoming a priest never crossed his mind. He grew up in Catholic family and attended 16 years of Catholic School. His father had attended seminary before meeting his mother, who was a convert to Catholicism. He recalled how his father, who was a lawyer, would go to different parishes in the community to give talks on Catholic social justice.
After graduating from Cardinal Hayes high school in 1953, Father Peter began school at Manhattan College where he studied business administration. While in school he worked at the local Safeway store. He shared that the starting rate was 75 cents an hour and he eventually received a raise to 95 cents an hour, and with that wage he paid for his full college tuition.
Following college Father Peter said, “I thought I would work in New York City the rest of my life,” so he decided to leave the city for the summer and worked on a 500-acre truck farm in Milan, Ohio where his mother’s relatives worked. He enjoyed the experience and, “learned what produce is supposed to taste like.” When the summer came to an end Father Gorges returned to New York and began work as a Junior Auditor at Bowery Savings Bank in Manhattan.
In 1957 he received the call that he had been drafted to serve in the U.S. Army, “They sent me a one-way token and said pack your bag,” so he left for Ft. Dix, New Jersey. Father Peter said that because his job at the bank had a great lunch program together with his mother’s cooking every night, he was unable to pass the initial Army fitness exam. Even after 8 weeks of physical training and a healthy diet, he was still unable to complete a full pull up, so he was sent to Army administration school, then Army Chaplain’s Assistant training. With the completion of the training he received orders to report to Anchorage, Alaska.
When Father Peter arrived in Anchorage he became friends with the head Catholic Chaplain on the base, who had worked with the assistant pastor at Father Peter’s parish back in New York. The Chaplain was able to find Father Peter an assignment in Kenai at Wildwood Station, as an assistant to the protestant chaplain and to assist the Catholic Chaplain that came in on Sundays. His Sunday duties included teaching religious education, making appointments for the priest, lectoring and altar serving during Mass. “I was everything except the priest,” he said.
Father Peter was in Kenai for six months, then was transferred back to Anchorage where he assisted a Jesuit priest at Fort Richardson. During his year in Anchorage he remembers being able to build relationships with the parishioners and saw how there was a need for priests. Before he was discharged from the Army Father Peter made an appointment with Bishop Dermott O’Flanagan to let him know he was interested in becoming a priest.
Once his service was up, the Bishop was able to get Father Peter into St. John Seminary in Boston, so he would be able to stay close to home. Two years before his ordination, the Archdiocese of Anchorage was established, splitting up the Diocese of Juneau. Father Peter shared how Father Frank Murphy came to visit him in Boston and asked him which diocese he would like to be a part of. Having served in what is now the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Father Peter wrote to Bishop O’Flanagan saying he planned on going to Anchorage. Father Peter said he received a quick response back that in short said, “You are not going to Anchorage, you belong to us.”
On June 8, 1967 Father Peter was ordained a Deacon by Bishop O’Flanagan in Juneau at the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was the first deacon ordained at the Cathedral. In his introduction to Southeast Alaska, he ministered in Douglas, Juneau, Hoonah, Skagway and Ketchikan.
Almost a year later, on May 29th, 1968 he was ordained a priest by Cardinal Cushing at Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston. The next day he celebrated his first Mass at Visitation Parish in the Bronx before he set off to Juneau.
His first assignment in the Diocese of Juneau was Assistant to Father James Miller, rector of the Cathedral. His ministry included celebrating monthly Mass at the missions in Hoonah, Salt Lake Bay logging camp, Pelican and Gustavus.
In 1969 he was named pastor of Wrangell and Petersburg, before being named the first pastor of St. Paul the Apostle in Juneau in 1972 and where he would stay until 1981. In his 50 years as a priest Father Peter has worked with all six bishops of the diocese and served as pastor at all but three parishes in the Diocese of Juneau, Haines, Skagway and Klawock. He has however celebrated Mass at all of the parishes over the years.
As a priest the role of confessor has had the most significance to him, “Part of being a confessor is letting people know that they made a mistake and that the Lord forgives them…and have the weight lifted from them.” He continued saying that if you ask any priest they’ll say it’s a wonderful sacrament, “It could be a one liner or 10 minutes…it gives someone who’s in distress the light of the Lord in their life.”
Though he retired in 2001, Father Peter has kept himself busy as the fill-in priest for all three dioceses in Alaska. He joked that, “It’s a great way to see the state and not have to pay for travel.” In 2015 Father Peter was a Lumen Christi finalist and received $10,000 to supplement travel expenses to fill-in for priests around the state.
As he looks back on the last 50 years Father Peter said the decision to minister as a priest in the Diocese of Juneau has been very fulfilling and he’s enjoyed working with all the bishops. He shared that as a priest he’s learned, “If people appreciate who you are and they respect you, and you have something to offer, life is good,” and this applies to all people and vocations.
Father Peter will celebrate his 50th anniversary on May 29th, at St. Gregory’s in Sitka. A Mass will be celebrated by Bishop Andrew Bellisario, C.M. and other priests in the Diocese. A reception will follow the Mass. Father Peter plans to celebrate his jubilee again in Juneau at the Cathedral and St. Paul’s in early July.