A man who worked more than 50 years as a Roman Catholic priest in the Fredericton area is being remembered for his humility, humour, devotion and special relationship with Indigenous people.
Rev. Monte Peters died Tuesday at his home at the St. Kateri Tekakwitha rectory in Hanwell, after a brief illness.
Peters was 80 and, until a few months ago, had been working as the priest at Holy Family Church and St. Ann's Church in Kingsclear First Nation.
Over the years, Peters worked at just about every Catholic church in the area. He also spent many years as chaplain on campus at the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University.
His death is being called "devastating" and "heart-wrenching" by parishioners past and present. They say his absence will "leave a big hole" in many ways.
Graydon Nicholas, the Wolastoqey former lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick and current chancellor of St. Thomas University, said he will miss Peters dearly.
Nicholas described his relationship with Peters, dating back to St. Francis Xavier University in the 1960s, as one of mutual support.
In 1991, the night before Nicholas was sworn in as the first Indigenous provincial court judge in New Brunswick, he asked a few people to go into a sweat lodge with him to pray that he would fulfil his responsibilities in a compassionate way. Peters was one of those invited.
Peters, in turn, called on Nicholas to help shed light on issues affecting Indigenous people. Sometimes this involved giving up his own preaching time during services to have Nicholas offer "reflections" as a guest.
Notably, Peters was doing this decades before efforts to reconcile with Indigenous peoples over the legacy of residential schools and colonization really ramped up in the church or in the country.
"Even way back," Peters was sympathetic to the suffering of First Nations communities, said Nicholas.
Nicholas recalled that in 1990, Peters invited him to share his reflections on what was happening during the Oka crisis, an armed standoff in Quebec over a planned golf course expansion in a forest claimed by the Mohawks of Kanesatake.
They subsequently went around town giving talks about it to any service clubs that invited them.
"He was always interested in shining a light on things that needed attention," said Noreen Bonnell, a member of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish. Bonnell is also past president of the Fergusson Foundation, which is dedicated to the prevention of family violence, another issue of special concern to Peters.
He was a regular at Fergusson Foundation meetings and fundraisers, said Bonnell, and he frequently added special prayers to his masses for those affected by family violence.
While he was priest at St. Anthony's, Peters allowed the church to be used as a venue for a series of concerts that raised over $50,000 for Liberty Lane, a second-stage housing organization, said organizer Irene Jewett.
The concerts started after a mother with four young children showed up at the rectory one day needing help to escape an abusive situation, recounted Jewett, who worked with Peters in the church office.
It was somewhat unusual for a church to be used for that type of event, but Peters thought it was an appropriate use of the space, she said, and he never missed a show.
Peters always said yes when church members wanted to try something new to reach out to people or make celebrations more meaningful, said Greg Forsythe, who served as choir director at St. Francis of Assisi in Lincoln and worked with Peters to organize personalized funerals and monthly community breakfasts.
Money raised at the breakfasts went to help people in the Lincoln area who had unexpected financial needs, he said, such as for buying cancer drugs or fitting a vehicle for mobility issues.
St. Anthony's lists among the highlights of his time there the establishment of parish daycare and nursing programs, and a proposal to build low-cost seniors housing on site.
Peters' "relaxed" attitude endeared him to many.
"He always liked to be called Monte," noted Nicholas — instead of the usual way for a priest to be addressed, which would have been Father Peters.
He frequently invited Elder Imelda Perley to incorporate Wolastoqey spiritual practices into ceremonies such as baptisms.
"Monte was willing to do it in the river or the forest or someone's backyard," said Perley.
His openness to Indigenous ways meant a lot, she said, after the repressive or abusive experiences many had in residential schools.
"He walked in our moccasins," she said. "And not that many people do that."
"His philosophy of life was that everyone is equal, and you take people as you find them," said history professor Stephen Patterson, when Peters was awarded an honorary doctorate from UNB in 1995.
Peters was like "a one-man institution" on campus, said Patterson, hosting spaghetti suppers for anyone who might enjoy the company, pulling all-nighters if a student needed help to "walk one off," defusing conflicts and facilitating resolutions.
Peters had a rare gift for "elegant" and non-confrontational exchanges of ideas, said Brian Connell, a councillor at St. Kateri.
For example, a few years ago, amid national concerns about Islamophobia, Peters invited a Muslim spiritual leader to talk to parishioners about things the two faith communities have in common.
He also "tried hard and successfully," to help people at Holy Family gain a better understanding of Indigenous people," Connell said.
One thing everyone said they'd remember Peters for was his sense of humour.
Patterson described it as his "secret weapon," when it came to settling disputes.
Parishioners like Bonnell said it was part of his gift for being truly present.
After telling a joke at the end of every mass, he took the time for a personal exchange and usually a laugh with anyone who stopped to shake his hand on their way out the door.
"He would send everyone off with laughter and joy."
A funeral is planned for May 14 at St. Dunstan's. It will be live streamed on the Bishop's Funeral Home website.