TAMPA — John Peterson surprised everyone at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Other rectors might have eased into retirement and wound down after more than two decades of leadership. Peterson, however, led a capital drive to raise $4 million — the largest fundraiser in the history of the century-old South Tampa church.
And the church didn’t just meet that goal. It exceeded it by about $600,000. That money enabled the church to buy the building that now is home to the St. John’s Episcopal Day School middle school.
“John spent 23 years of his life building St. John’s into what it was when he left and what it is today,” said Jack Murray Jr., former warden of the vestry at St. John’s.
Peterson will mark the 50th anniversary of his ordination into priesthood this year, and the church will hold a celebration Dec. 8 to honor his contributions to the parish and the Tampa community. He “retired” in 2000, but he stays active as a volunteer at St. Joseph’s Hospital and as the chaplain for Holland America and Princess cruise lines. He still leads the occasional service at St. John’s, but for the most part, when he and his wife Kay aren’t traveling, they enjoy spending time with their four sons and six grandchildren.
“He’s wonderful,” said Chip Connelly, the bishop’s vicar at St. John’s. “He’s everything you would want in a priest. He lives the life of a priest. His faith guides everything that he does.”
Peterson, 77, and his family came to Tampa in 1979, after 15 years as the rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal in a wealthy neighborhood in the Chicago suburbs.
Originally from Detroit, Peterson was ordained in Lansing, Mich., in 1963. He earned a degree in psychology from Michigan State University, but spent a few years deciding what he wanted to do with his life. He worked as a youth counselor before becoming a deacon and eventually enrolling in seminary school.
“I felt this unrest until I made the decision to answer what I felt was a call to ordained ministry,” Peterson said.
He is modest about all that he has accomplished in his 50 years as a minister, his friends and family say. But they are quick and proud to boast for him.
“He has accomplished so much that you’d expect him to brag about it a little,” Murray said. “John brags about it not at all. He is remarkably humble. It’s just who he is. And that’s one of the things that made him such an outstanding leader.”
While he was a rector in Chicago, St. Mark’s Episcopal grew by about 600 percent, according to Peterson’s son, Lee Peterson. He organized the fundraisers to expand the church and build the St. Mark’s Day School, and he started a “Town Hall” program that attracted speakers like Alex Haley, Maria Von Trapp and Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke.
Around the time of the Civil Rights movement, Peterson was a founding member of Episcopalians and Others for Responsible Social Action, which raised money to support minority businesses, Lee Peterson said. He also served on a White House committee under Robert J. Brown, Richard Nixon’s first black appointee to his Cabinet, and on the board of Christian Action Ministry, a group that formed to help heal turmoil created after the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
Eventually, Peterson was offered the job as rector at St. John’s.
“They didn’t even ask for a resume,” Kay Peterson said.
Back then, St. John’s was small and practically broke, Peterson said. He laughs when he tells the story of how he lived in a motor home while Kay and their sons remained in Chicago for several months, waiting for the house to sell. But he threw himself into growing the church, and in his two decades as rector, he led three large-scale capital drives, celebrated St. John’s Diamond Jubilee and oversaw as parishioners became actively involved in programs such as Metropolitan Ministries, United Way, Habitat for Humanity and Corner Stone Kids.
The church now has more than 2,000 members and a $1 million operating budget.
Peterson served on several county committees and frequently was invited to lead invocations at Tampa City Council and Hillsborough County Commission meetings. He also led the invocation during the dedication ceremonies of the John F. Germany and Jan Kaminis Platt Regional libraries.
“I think we’re here to serve,” Peterson said. “Wherever there is a need.”
He is a hard worker and dedicated community member, said former county commissioner Jan Platt.
“He never said ‘no’ to a good project,” said Platt, who will be at his anniversary celebration at St. John’s next month. “He went beyond the church.”
Peterson earned a national reputation for the work he did at St. John’s Episcopal, Murray said. He literally practiced what he preached, which is why he made such a lasting impression on the church and the community.
“He led a perfect life by example,” Murray said. “Good husband, good father, good member of the community. Each one of the boxes you would check off, John did that by example. And he still does it.”