St. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Returning home after serving in the U.S. Army, Peter Fiore, OFM, enrolled at Siena College under the G.I. bill – and although it was nearly 75 years ago, he still recalls the “best decision” he ever made as if it were yesterday because it introduced him to the Franciscan friars and led to a lifetime of education ministry at the Loudonville, New York, campus where it all began.
“The greatest thing that happened to me was going to Siena because I got to spend four years around the friars. Mostly every course in English and American Literature was taught by a Franciscan, and there were a lot of friars on campus back then,” said Peter, who graduated in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in English and went on to become a friar, scholar, professor, administrator and author.
“The friars were so down to earth. You could talk to them as if you were having a conversation with your father, brother, or a friend. They had a big influence on my decision to join Holy Name Province the year after I graduated,” said Peter, who this month, on Aug. 13, is marking a jubilee anniversary – his 70th from the day he professed his simple vows in 1951. The milestone comes just a month before his birthday – which will be his 94th on Sept. 8.
It was just 18 months ago, at the end of January 2020, that Peter retired from active ministry at the age of 92, moving from Siena College – where he had been English professor emeritus and scholar-in-residence since 1996 – to his new home at St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Florida.
With pandemic-related travel restrictions now lifted, Peter decided on a return trip to Siena, where he spent part of the summer living at St. Bernardine of Siena Friary while enjoying the beautiful campus landscape and visiting with his nieces and nephews who live nearby.
“Since my move to Florida, one of my nieces or nephews calls almost daily to check up on me, so it will be nice to see them in person again,” Peter said during a phone interview from the St. Petersburg friary before leaving for Siena.
Grateful to Province for Opportunities
Academia has always been central to his ministerial work, with more than 50 of his 70 years as a professed friar devoted to teaching and administrative roles at Siena. Peppered in between have been parish ministry and work in the Provincial Office.
“It has been a very integrated life – in the classroom, on the administration level, and with pastoral care at parishes, sometimes all going on at the same time. The Province has always been open and encouraging to everything I do,” said Peter, who at the height of his ministry found himself teaching two classes on weekdays, hearing confessions at a parish on Friday mornings, and helping with weekend sacramental ministry at parishes by celebrating two Masses and officiating at weddings and baptisms.
The friars at Siena not only put vocation on his radar, but they also inspired his areas of teaching expertise – which, among others, include 17th century English Literature and honors seminars on the Great Books, Dante, Shakespeare, and theological issues in Western literature.
“The friars were brilliant English teachers and motivators, but my love of literature started at home. Although my parents had limited education, they always had a sense for the beauty found in the arts – and that’s what got me interested in literature and the liberal arts,” said Peter, who earned a master’s degree in English from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1955 – the same year he was ordained to the priesthood. Shortly after ordination, he was assigned to Siena as an instructor for two years.
Peter has always been grateful to Holy Name Province for its “welcome and hospitality” and the “many opportunities” it provided throughout his ministerial life – including the opportunity to study abroad at the University of London in England, where he earned a doctorate in English Renaissance Literature with a concentration on the theological aspects of redemption and salvation in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” which was the focus of his thesis and, ultimately, the subject of one of six books he has authored.
To its credit, Holy Name Province, he says, believes in educating its friars. “The opportunity to study in England was a great gift from the Province. It opened many doors,” said Peter, who lived with Franciscan friars in Rome and worked at parishes across Europe in between semesters.
He maintained his connection to the University of London by returning for 18 consecutive summers to lecture on literature and the arts, and to conduct research for his published works.
Fascination with Literature
After completing his doctorate, Peter returned to the States in 1961 and found his way back “home” to his alma mater, beginning more than 50 years of service at Siena as a professor of English, chair of the English Department, and dean of the School of Liberal Arts.
During part of his tenure, he headed Siena’s distinguished Greyfriar Living Literature Series, bringing to campus some of the most celebrated writers of the time as guest lecturers and presenters of workshops, among them Hal Holbrook, Brooks Atkinson, Basil Rathbone, Alfred Kazin, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Peter also served as editor of Greyfriar: Siena Studies in Literature, a journal that published the works of scholars and artists.
No matter how many classes he taught, or the broad range of subject matter, Peter’s fascination with literature has never grown old.
“In all the Great Books, you’ll find everything that we go through in life. The great writers of the past wrote about life as they experienced it. The Great Books are the cultural background and foundation on which we live our lives. Whether it’s Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, Pride and Prejudice, or any other great work, they provide answers and resolutions to our present-day issues,” he said.
Looking back on his 70 years as a friar and more than five decades in academia, Peter says teaching about the Great Books and liberal arts has been deeply rewarding.
“Being in the world of the beautiful has been very comforting – almost like a religious experience. What a consolation it has been, to be able to impart to thousands of students the great literature that has been written through the centuries,” said Peter, who estimates that he has taught nearly 5,000 students. One of them was Chris Gibson, who took office as the 12th president of Siena College on July 1, 2020, and who made it a point to tell Peter in a phone conversation after the appointment was announced that the friar played a major role in his personal and professional life.
“My students were more than just young people who signed up for my courses. Many became lifelong friends,” said Peter, who still stays in contact with hundreds of former students through phone calls, emails, Christmas cards, and sometimes over lunch when they’re passing through the area.
For Peter, teaching young people has been a blessing and a privilege – and, through it all, he has always strived to be an ideal friar, professor, minister, and member of the HNP fraternity.
“It is important as a teacher to convey your own enthusiasm about what you’re teaching, and that comes with bringing excitement into the classroom about the authors and their works,” said Peter, who added, “You have to look for values in literature because good literature generally reflects good values. You have to lead young students to good literature. They need direction and they want to engage in conversation about values.”
Pausing Leads to a Homecoming
Hitting the pause button on academics in 1988, Peter again returned home, this time to Glens Falls, New York, to serve in pastoral ministry at St. Mary’s Parish – where he had worshipped with his family as a child, served as an altar boy, and was taught by the Josephite sisters at St. Mary’s Academy.
“Going back to the parish where I grew up and the attended grade school was a big thrill. There were parishioners still there who attended the first Mass I celebrated after ordination. I reconnected with a lot of old friends and with some of the sisters who I had as teachers. Parish work was very affirming, making people feel welcome and accepting them where they are in their lives,” said Peter.
Two years later, he accepted a new role in the Province as HNP’s director of communications, using his talents and skills to write a twice-monthly newsletter and develop promotional brochures and pamphlets, among other tasks.
“Working in New York City and living at the West 31st friary was very appealing because I loved the city and enjoyed its culture and arts offerings, especially the opera and Broadway shows,” said Peter, who served as communications director for six years until heading back to Siena in 1996 to become scholar-in-residence at the college.
“Peter and I have been friends for decades – and during that time, we have eaten many dishes of pasta together, and have seen many musicals, plays and operas,” said Kenneth Paulli, OFM, associate professor of education and chief of staff at Siena College, who enjoyed reconnecting with Peter during his longtime friend’s recent stay on campus.
“I am so grateful for all these shared experiences. However, it’s Peter’s intellectual curiosity, love of teaching, and commitment to the art and craft of writing that continues to inspire me to be the best college professor I can be at Siena,” added Ken, a 1982 Siena graduate.
An accomplished author, one of Peter’s books, “The Gospels Are Now,” takes timeless Gospel themes and examines how these biblical motifs influence life, literature, and the arts. In another book, “Milton and Augustine: Patterns of Augustinian Thought in Milton’s Paradise Lost,” Peter presents a detailed investigative study of the principal dogmatic concepts in Paradise Lost against the backdrop of Augustinian theology. In addition to a half-dozen books, Peter has published dozens of articles in scholarly journals.
In 2013, when he was scholar-in-residence – and while also serving in part-time pastoral ministry at St. Mary’s Church in nearby Ballston Spa – the Peter Fiore, OFM, Excellence in English Endowment was established at Siena by alumnus William McGoldrick and his wife to celebrate Peter’s achievements and support faculty and student enrichment in literature and the arts.
Caring That Never Stops
The youngest of three children of a religious family that was active in the parish – and whose mother was a homemaker, and whose father owned several businesses that included a grocery store, barbershop, and liquor store – religious vocation wasn’t even an afterthought for Peter. He was more interested during his adolescent years in comic books, movies, bike-riding, and making a few dollars delivering groceries to local customers of his father’s shop. It wasn’t until his stint in the Army that he did “some serious thinking” about religious life.
“I realized that the discipline I learned in the Army helped me with the decisions I made later on. But it was the impression that the friars made during my junior and senior years at Siena that really put the focus on vocation,” said Peter, a member of several literary and professional organizations, such as the Modern Language Association, Metropolitan Opera Guild, Irish Repertory Theater of New York, and the prestigious Milton Seminar.
“There was something about the way the friars cared for others – their compassion and forgiveness, and the whole idea of giving their time and talents. What impressed me most was that their caring never stopped. The atmosphere of respect and caring at Siena was instilled by the friars,” added Peter, who after college graduation worked for his father’s businesses for about a year before entering the novitiate in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1950. He also professed his first vows in Paterson a year later and made his solemn profession in 1954 in Allegany, New York.
Reading, Eating, and the Yankees
Since living in retirement, Peter has kept active — reading and continuing to do research in the hope of publishing another book. He depends on other friars at the St. Petersburg friary for rides since his driving skills have waned with age.
“The guys are great here,” he said. “They drive me wherever I have to go. It’s a wonderful fraternity.”
Besides the opera and Broadway musicals, Peter enjoys eating good Italian cuisine – his favorite dishes are bucatini with puttanesca sauce and any type of pasta with marinara sauce. He also is a baseball fan who roots for the New York Yankees – although his team loyalty is questionable because his interest in the Bronx Bombers comes “only when they are winning.”
But what he relishes most about retirement is catching up on books for which he never had time to read – which might seem like a contradiction since he has read hundreds of books, maybe even in the thousands, during the course of his life as a student and professor.
“You teach a lot of courses and read many authors, but you never get to all of them,” said Peter, who enjoys reading British novelists Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene because of how they immerse themselves in moral and political issues and drive home the very Franciscan notion that all people are one humanity.
“You never get to read all of their works because you’re focusing only on the books that you teach in the classroom. Now I have the time to read the lesser-known works of many great writers that I have taught about. You never know what gem you’ll come across,” said Peter.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
Editor’s note: A profile of the other HNP friar who is marking 70 years of profession this year, Ignatius Smith, OFM, was published in October 2020.
- “Recognizing 2021 Jubilarians, Remembering Those who Died in 2020” – Jan. 20, 2021, HNP Today
- “College Creates Endowment Named for Peter Fiore” – Aug. 28, 2013, HNP Today
- Peter Fiore section of Siena College website