By Bishop Andrew Bellisario, C.M.
Father Peter Gorges, who died in Anchorage on October 9th, while recovering from injuries from a fall, was known and loved not only in his home diocese of Juneau but all over our state. Two days before his funeral Mass and burial in Juneau, many of those he had served and befriended during fifty years of service in Alaska gathered for a requiem Mass at the Co-Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Anchorage to mourn and celebrate the passing of this good and holy priest.
The following are memories and appreciation of Father Peter that I shared in the homily for his funeral in Juneau.
It was just last year, in May 2018, that we gathered at St. Gregory Parish in Sitka, to celebrate Father Peter’s 50th anniversary of priesthood. And what a wonderful celebration it was! People came from all over to Father Peter’s home of Sitka to celebrate with him.
As is the case with significant milestones, people started sharing stories about Father Peter, how he had married them, baptized their children, and in many cases, their children’s children. They shared stories about his being present, always there when he was needed, how they enjoyed his coming over to the house for dinner, or lunch, or just for a visit. How he prayed with them, and prayed over them, in their time of need, anointed them when they were sick, cried with them at a loss of a loved one, or traveled with them on pilgrimages. He brought them the Eucharist and the Sacraments, often in remote locations where opportunities to receive the Sacraments are rare.
Many recalled Father Peter’s spirituality, his service as a pastor, his leadership in the charismatic renewal, his commitment to the Church, to the Sacraments, and Jesus Christ. Father Peter believed in a personal relationship with Jesus and its importance in the life of every Christian. He was accepted as a loving brother, and respected and loved as a faithful priest. And many remarked how he was always busy moving, traveling, and working, proclaiming the good news of the Gospel even though he was retired.
I recall sharing a story during the homily at his 50th anniversary Mass. I had been telling him about the many trips I had planned throughout the diocese. Not to be outdone, he pulled out his schedule travel list that dwarfed my own. He wanted me, his bishop, to know that although he was retired, he was still very active, that he loved being a priest, that he truly loved those whom he served, and that he hadn’t given up on life or ministry.
He used to say that the only difference for him about being retired was that he could say “no.” Really? Had any one of us ever heard him say “no,” or refuse anyone? I believe it was only when his list had schedule conflicts that he would politely decline a request because even he could not be in two places at the same time.
In August of this year, the day before he fell in the rectory of the Cathedral, he and I again found ourselves discussing his hectic schedule. He was happy that he had so much on it. I could see the joy in his eyes. He was looking forward to filling in for one of our priests, something he did all the time. He loved helping his brother priests throughout the state because he loved his brother priests. It was a win-win proposition for him. He helped the priest to get away, and he had the joy of serving in their place.
Father Peter spent about fifteen minutes acquainting me with his cherished schedule list, and when he finished, I asked him, “and how is that retirement of yours going?” He just laughed, with a hint of pride and satisfaction, knowing he was serving the people of God. He was happy doing what he was called by God to do: fulfilling his ordination promises, being among God’s people, the sheep of God’s flock, and, as Pope Francis encourages all priests, to be so close to his sheep, taking on their smell. Father Peter smelled like his sheep for over 50 years. He was happy being Peter, a child of God, created in God’s image and likeness. This priest was filled with zeal for the salvation of souls.
After he had fallen and broke his leg and wrist, finding himself laid up at Providence Rehabilitation and Extended Care Center in Anchorage, he was frustrated. Not because he was in pain nor feeling sorry for himself; in fact, he kept his gentle spirit and sense of humor and was kind and courteous to staff members and his many visitors, telling stories, laughing, and praying together. His frustration lay in his disappointment that he wasn’t going to be able to fulfill his commitments on his cherished list, at least in the short term. It was his goal to get back on his feet and healthy enough to slowly begin creating and fulfilling a new list of service in God’s name.
That commitment to service is why Father Peter came to be in Alaska. On the surface, it is a simple enough story. He was drafted into the army, was sent to Alaska to Fort Richardson in Anchorage, and assigned as a chaplain’s assistant. It was there that he noticed Alaska needed priests. He went back to his home on the East Coast, entered the seminary, was ordained, returned to Juneau, and spent fifty-one years and five months in the Diocese of Juneau serving God’s people. A simple story, no doubt. But something is missing.
Let’s take a closer look at that origin story in light of the Emmaus story proclaimed as our Gospel today. Two disciples were on their way to Emmaus after the death of Jesus on the cross. They were downcast, discussing all that had transpired when “it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, ‘What are you discussing as you walk along?’” They responded, among other things, “Some women from our group have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive.” Although Jesus stayed with them for a while, it was only after Jesus broke the bread and vanished from their sight that their eyes were opened and they exclaimed: “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?”
It was Father Peter’s heart that was the missing part of his “coming to Alaska story.” When he came to Alaska, he met the Lord in a personal way in the breaking of the bread, and his heart burned within him. The Lord spoke to Father Peter “on the way” (his journey with the Lord) and opened the scriptures to him. His heart caught fire with the love of God for his people! As a newly ordained priest in 1968, he didn’t stay at home with the many accompanying comforts, nor did he return to Alaska solely because of a job opportunity to fill a slot for a priest. He returned to Alaska as a missionary priest with a heart burning with love for Christ and his people.
What we have all experienced in this faithful priest is the burning heart of Jesus’ love, the Sacred Heart of Jesus that radiates love for you and me. We have experienced Jesus Christ in this good, loving, and faithful priest, Father Peter Gorges. As we all continue, “on the way,” (on our journey with the Lord who is with us every step of the way), let Father Peter inspire us to open our hearts to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Like his, may our hearts burn with the love of God for his people!
You can watch a recording of Father Peter’s funeral Mass at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKzSvN-7fws&t=1293s