The Rev. Peter J. Scanlon, WPI’s first Catholic chaplain, and a joyous and comforting presence for several generations of WPI students, died Sept. 24, 2015, at age 84. “Father Pete,” as he was widely known, is warmly remembered as a welcoming and supportive friend by alumni of all faiths.
Born and raised on Worcester’s Vernon Hill, Scanlon graduated from St. John’s High School and then from Holy Cross College in 1953. He was ordained in 1957, after attending Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He began his collegiate ministry working in the Newman Apostolate in 1961 and served at several parishes and at other Worcester area's colleges. He was charged by the Worcester Diocese with creating a Catholic ministry on the area college campuses, and in 1969 he became WPI’s full-time Catholic chaplain.
Scanlon also served as chaplain to the Worcester Fire Department for 45 years. Early on, he was faced with the death of young firefighter, an experience he described as “gut wrenching” to a reporter from the Worcester Telegram. In December 1999 he was called to the scene of the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire, which claimed the lives of six firefighters—men he’d known since they joined the force. “Many of the city's firefighters are sons, brothers, or cousins of men who've served in the WFD for decades,” he told the WPI Wire. “When you get to know them, you also get to know their families, and when you live and work in Worcester almost all your life, as I have, you feel an even closer bond because of your shared history.”
Although he sustained the bereaved families and firefighters in the aftermath of that tragedy, and sat onstage at the memorial service beside the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and other dignitaries, Scanlon declined to speak at the ceremony. “I was not sure I could have handled that moment,” he said. In the Telegram he said it was his faith—and WPI students, who stayed with him and brought him food during the long days he spent at the firehouse—that got him through the ordeal.
At WPI, students turned to Scanlon for assistance with problems off all kinds. He was known for providing aid, even when their needs were unconventional. “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, Scanlon served as their advisor 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, Scanlon sanctioned using the Collegiate Religious Center as a collection point. “Everybody won!” he told the Journal, pointing out that the students earned points towards prizes, and the campus got a good cleanup.
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. 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, Scanlon 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. “We have become a parish to the students on campus,” he told the WPI Journal. “The future looks very hopeful to me.”
Scanlon took his mission beyond the pulpit, finding ways to reach out to the entire student body, regardless of their religious affiliation. “Most of the time I go right out on campus and talk with the kids wherever they may be,” he said in a 1977 profile. “Sometimes it’s in a dormitory room, down at the Pub, or at a ball game.” Decades after they graduated, many alumni still recall the nicknames he used to greet them.
His reach extended beyond the boundaries of campus, also, and he was not bounded by the concept of “office hours.” Thanks to a fire department radio in his car and in his rectory, he was a “first responder” on occasions when students suffered a serious injury or disaster. After the death of a student in a dormitory, he sat up all night talking with residents, trying to help them cope with the loss. In another incident, he opened his residence to house the mother of a student who was hospitalized, so she could stay near her son.
On the occasion of Scanlon’s retirement in 2006, alumni were asked for their memories and reflections, which were posted in an online tribute. They remembered him as a mentor, a counselor, a “faith coach,” and a friend. They described his manner as up-to-date, gentle, no-nonsense, and down-to-earth. One response referred to Scanlon as “an old priest who still knew what it was like to be a young college kid emerging into a world of independence.”
Scanlon kept his ties with WPI alumni, and in the age of email, learned how to send out weekly messages of inspiration. He presided at the weddings of numerous alumni and baptized their children. A few of those children went on to attend WPI, where they had Scanlon as their own chaplain.
Dubbed “Worcester’s busiest priest,” Scanlon was listed in Who’s Who in American Religion, and in the Dictionary of American Religion. At Homecoming in 2011, he was honored with the Goat’s Head Award for Lifetime Commitment to WPI at Homecoming. He is survived by his sister, Peggyann T. Scanlon.
Read the complete archive of tributes from WPI alumni on Fr. Scanlon’s retirement in 2006.