Worldly, wise and “wonderful,” Msgr. Edwin James Petersen spent more than half a century sharing the Gospel with thousands throughout the central San Joaquin Valley.
The Roman Catholic priest died May 3 at age 82 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia. In the end, his hospital room at Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno resembled a jungle of flowers and potted plants from the many who stopped by to share their love.
“Jim was a great convener of diverse persons because he could reach people on so many different levels,” said Jim Grant, director of the Social Justice Ministry for the Diocese of Fresno. “He was a scholar and a pastor. A man of great study, but of tremendous theological insight and pastoral sense. He was a priest’s priest and beloved by just about anyone who knew monsignor.”
He was a giant.
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Msgr. Petersen last served as pastor of the Shrine of St. Therese in Fresno before his semi-retirement in 2009. He continued to regularly preach at the Nazareth House of Fresno and was a sought-after adviser for the diocese until his health took a turn several months ago.
Sara Ferrall, a longtime St. Therese parishioner, fondly recalls a friendly man with a warm personality who took special care of the community’s most vulnerable and in need.
In addition, she says, his “very, very good” homilies were “never too long.”
“Once you made the point,” Ferrall recalled, “you don’t have to make them again. He had a great sense of humor, actually.”
He was really funny. Nobody could tell a joke like Father Pete.
James Peter DeYoung
Msgr. Petersen’s church appointments since he was ordained as a priest in 1959 include, in order: St. Mary in Cutler; the Shrine of St. Therese in Fresno; St. Patrick in Arroyo Grande; Our Lady of Sorrows in Parlier; St. Patrick, Our Lady of Mercy, Sacred Heart, all in Merced; St. Anthony of Padua in Fresno and, finally, back to St. Therese in 2000.
He had a number of other assignments throughout his life, including serving a few years as rector of San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, and six years as executive director of the California Catholic Conference in the 1990s, which convened bishops from throughout the state.
Grant, also host/producer of KNXT Catholic Television, called Msgr. Petersen a “forward-looking” priest who promoted respect and understanding between religions. Msgr. Petersen was moderator of a television program titled “The New Forum of Better Understanding” for nearly a decade. A 1983 story in The Bee describes that show:
“The format is simple. A Reform Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister will sit down together and talk about relevant theological, political and social issues. They will not be debating. They will be discussing, always striving to show respect for each other’s viewpoints.”
“He was very well-respected,” said Msgr. Raymond Dreiling, vicar general of the Diocese of Fresno, “and a person everyone would just be drawn to. … I’m going to miss his preaching, his ability to put into words what many are thinking and feeling. … Simply to listen to the resonance of his voice was a real blessing. He had a beautiful, beautiful speaking voice and he used it very effectively to proclaim the Gospel, but also for care and compassion.”
Msgr. Petersen was a great supporter of the arts – attending more than 200 Broadway shows and countless symphonies and operas – enjoyed playing piano, guitar and flute, and writing poetry in addition to his homilies.
The world traveler had a sharp mind that helped him become fluent in English, Spanish, Latin, Italian, Greek, German, French and a bit of Dutch.
He was very attuned to what other cultures were all about, and he traveled the world extensively. He was very nonpolitical, peaceful, gentle, fun-loving.
James Peter DeYoung
He loved watching the game show, “Jeopardy,” and friends say he rarely missed a question. His “encyclopedic” memory also made him a valuable source for archivists at the diocese.
A short profile published in The Bee in 1985 shines more light on his personality. Here are some of his answers to a questionnaire:
“Best asset: Compassion.
My friends like me because: I’m loyal.
If I couldn’t be a priest, I’d love to be: An actor.
Best advice I ever gave: Keep busy.
The best thing my parents ever gave me: A spirit of independence.
The world would be a lot better off if: We would eliminate bigotry.”
Growing up Catholic, he was what you would hope for and expect in a priest – and he was kind. He was never judgmental, which is a big deal.
He wrote more about bigotry in a submission published in The Bee in 1991 titled, “What is your attitude toward religions other than your own? Fight bigotry by example.”
An excerpt: “Even though I was raised in a Catholic family, I grew up in a small town (Randsburg, Calif.) where people had decided to get along with each other. I sang in the Methodist church youth choir on Wednesday nights and went to Daily Vacation Bible School at the Foursquare church every summer. …
“Throughout my entire life I have been blessed by my encounters with men and women of every faith. I am saddened when I hear bigoted remarks and when I see religious stereotypes perpetuated. I would like to encourage readers of The Bee to fight that evil, not with hatred and vindictiveness, but with enlightenment and patience and forbearance. Do not let the bigotry of others produce bigotry in you. Rather, forgive them, as Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth would, because of their ignorance. Teach them by your good example.”
Msgr. Petersen’s parents operated a general store in Randsburg, a gold mining town in the Mojave Desert. In the sixth grade, he found his calling after a priest asked if he wanted to go to seminary school. Petersen once said the priest’s question “triggered something that was already in my head.” Ministry work wasn’t a foreign concept – three of his sisters were nuns. So at age 13, he boarded a train for Josephinum Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, where he trained until receiving his first church appointment at St. Mary in Cutler.
Msgr. Petersen became like a brother and uncle to James Peter DeYoung of Fresno, who was named after the priest.
He’s been a priest for our family, but he’s been so much more – and we weren’t the only ones.
James Peter DeYoung
“He was all about love,” James Peter DeYoung said. “That was Jesus Christ’s number one message, to love one another.”
The DeYoung family, who recently moved across the street from Msgr. Petersen’s home, cared for the priest in his final months as his health declined. Up until the very end, they say he kept a positive attitude.
James Peter DeYoung’s brother and sister-in-law were at his bedside when he died. They say he was in and out of consciousness in his final moments, talking happily with his mother and praying. When they took each of his hands and started praying with him, his mumbling turned into coherent speech. They said The Lord’s Prayer together and as they finished with a Hail Mary, he died.
James Peter DeYoung says the way he passed seemed right.
“When he walked into a room, everyone knew it, and when he left, no one knew it. We truly believe that was his intention: He wanted to slip out the back door real quiet. No suffering, and in prayer …”
Msgr. Edwin James Petersen
Born: Nov. 8, 1933
Died: May 3, 2016
Occupation: Roman Catholic priest
Survivors: Cousins Msgr. Terry Richey and Sr. Patrice Underwood, and many other extended family members
Liturgy of the Hours Vigil: 6:30 p.m. Thursday at The Shrine of St. Therese Catholic Church, 1410 N. Wishon Ave. in Fresno, with visitation starting at 5 p.m.
Funeral Mass: 10:30 a.m. Friday at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, 5680 N. Maroa Ave. in Fresno, followed by a reception in the church’s event center
Burial: 3 p.m. Friday at St. Peter’s Catholic Cemetery, 264 N. Blythe Ave. in Fresno. Procession from St. Anthony’s starts at 2:30 p.m.
In lieu of flowers: Donations can be sent to the Priests Retirement Plan, 1550 N. Fresno Street, Fresno, CA 93703.
Interview with Msgr. Petersen: The diocesan TV station will rebroadcast an interview titled “Conversation with Msgr. Petersen” at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday on KNXT, Channel 49 (Channel 9 on Comcast)