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Thomas Ferrick, 84; Harvard’s first humanist chaplain

Mr. Ferrick never stopped asking questions during his  time serving as a priest.

Mr. Ferrick never stopped asking questions during his time serving as a priest.

En route from his place at the pulpit as a Roman Catholic parish priest to his tiny basement office in Memorial Church as Harvard University’s first humanist chaplain, Tom Ferrick set aside beliefs that had provided sustenance after his parents died when he was a child.

“One doesn’t lose faith overnight in the religion that supported him and inspired him through all his mature years,” he told the Globe in 1973. “It erodes, I think, by virtue of the keen observation of life and the judgment that no earthly authority can assume so wide a competence as the Catholic Church did.”

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Slight of frame, Mr. Ferrick was so thoughtful and calm that some who met him in his later years couldn’t imagine him raising his voice in protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, but his words always packed a philosophical wallop.

“The notion that we all stand in need of redemption is antihumanist,” he told the Globe in 1990. “The fact that ordinary human beings are capable of love, compassion, and sacrifice, independent of theology, is proof that we can indeed be good without God.”

Mr. Ferrick, who served for more than 30 years as Harvard’s humanist chaplain and previously was the leader of the Ethical Society of Boston, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease Dec. 30 in Cambridge, where he had lived. He was 84.

“He obviously was a pathfinder,” said Dr. Joseph Gerstein, treasurer of the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard.

A pioneering humanist chaplain on US college campuses, Mr. Ferrick was instrumental in building a foundation for locally-based humanist communities across the country, said Greg Epstein, his successor as humanist chaplain at Harvard.

Part of Mr. Ferrick’s legacy can be seen in the Humanist Hub center off Harvard Square, a center that held its first event in December.

When Mr. Ferrick began working at Harvard in 1974, he was one of several chaplains and the only one who wasn’t Catholic, Jewish, or part of a mainstream Protestant denomination.

Although he traded godliness for godlessness when he left the priesthood and became a prominent humanist leader in Greater Boston, Mr. Ferrick spent his tenure advocating for bringing a spectrum of denominations into Harvard’s chaplaincy.

His was often the first and the warmest welcoming voice to newcomers. The university now hosts nearly three dozen chaplains, from Baha’i and Buddhist to Mennonite and Zoroastrian.

Mr. Ferrick “was a gentle, wise, reflective presence who had extreme difficulty calling attention to himself,” said Epstein, who added that he “lived a life of almost monastic devotion to the power of ideas and the power of truth and the power of reason.”

When he left the priesthood, Mr. Ferrick served a few years as head of the Ethical Society of Boston, subsisting on annual pay of a few thousand dollars. In 1974, he proposed to Harvard that creating a humanist chaplaincy would benefit students.

Two years after starting work at the university, he told the student newspaper the Crimson that “humanism is not science, nor mysticism, but is a faith in human experience.”

His own path from faith in God to faith in human experience was as much a journey of the mind.

“In retrospect it was ‘knowledge’ that was the engine of my life,” he told Harvard magazine in 2005 as he prepared to retire. “I believed I had proof. The rational steps that I could take brought me right to God. Only many years later did I realize that those were not automatic steps up a staircase to God; they were great flights of hope and faith.”

The second of three children, Thomas Ferrick initially lived in Haverhill. His mother, the former Helen Ring, worked in a box factory, and his father, Edward, worked in construction.

“He got tuberculosis and then she got it,” Mr. Ferrick’s sister, Dorothy Cogan of Casco, Maine, said of their parents, who died when the three children were young.

“We became state wards,” she said, and their mother’s wish was that the three children remain together. A Rockland family them took in, even though Edward, the oldest, had asthma.

Mr. Ferrick went to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, and then to seminary before becoming a college chaplain and a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston.

“Tom told me that when he was in the seminary he would ask questions that the priests couldn’t answer,” his sister recalled with a laugh.

His questioning persisted during his time as a priest.

“What bothered me greatly was the credulous, uncritical acceptance of very silly, inane, and often harmful regulations,” he said of the Catholic Church in the 1973 Globe interview.

He was troubled by Catholic teachings on everything from abortion and birth control to the sinfulness of missing Mass or eating meat on a Friday.

In a 1979 letter to the editor of the Globe, he pulled no punches in criticizing the Catholic Church’s position on gays and lesbians.

“The Church’s hoary view of human sexuality is a ghostly wreck of a ship blown out of the water by modern science, and destined for the supernatural scrap heap,” wrote Mr. Ferrick, who added that “no one is really listening, especially gays.”

He left the priesthood in 1969.

As leader of the Ethical Society, and then as a humanist chaplain, he lived on an income so modest it might as well have been a vow of poverty.

“I suppose he was used to that as a priest,” Gerstein said.

In a letter, Mr. Ferrick once likened the economic status of the humanist chaplaincy to “a drowning man treading water,” Epstein said.

One day John Loeb, a wealthy Harvard alumnus, read an article about Mr. Ferrick in the Harvard Gazette and invited him to lunch. They became friends and when Loeb and his wife donated tens of millions to the university in the early 1990s, Loeb used $800,000 to endow the humanist chaplaincy.

“I’ve sort of been a humanist,” Loeb told The New York Times in 1995.

“More crimes are being committed in the name of God every year. The humanistic approach of deeds, not creeds, appeals to me.”

Mr. Ferrick’s older brother, meanwhile, spent his life as a Dominican priest and was serving a parish in Peru when he died in the 1990s.

Each year, Mr. Ferrick would spent a week with his sister for her birthday, and when he and his brother crossed paths at gatherings, their philosophical and theological discussions knew no end.

“Tom and Ed would always argue about religion, which isn’t a big surprise,” their sister recalled, laughing.

“They’d sit out on the deck and have coffee and breakfast and go around. Even if they were riding in the back seat they would go at it, but they were always friends. They just didn’t see eye to eye on that subject, and I was in between, keeping them happy.”

A service for Mr. Ferrick, whose sister is his only immediate survivor, will be held at 1:30 p.m. March 2 in the Humanist Hub at 30 John F. Kennedy St. in Cambridge.

Leaving religion behind also meant setting aside thoughts of an afterlife, which Mr. Ferrick believed made each day more precious.

“If your existence ends when you die, you will treasure life more, and you will try harder to do right and fight for good,” he told the Crimson in 1978. “You regard this world as something holy.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.

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