GALENA, Md. – Hours could slip by unnoticed listening to the Rev. Thomas J. Peterman talk about his favorite subject.
During his 39 years as a priest he has spent much of his free time researching the history of Roman Catholicism in Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. And it shows.
No question goes unanswered as past events are recounted and prominent Catholic colonists described by the energetic 64-year- old, who recently published his third book.
It took seven years to complete “Catholics in Colonial Delmarva.” The book covers everything from the first European to set foot in the region in 1524 – Italian explorer Giovanni Verrazano – to the consecration of John Carroll as first bishop of the United States in 1790.
“He’s a relentless researcher,” said the Rev. John M. Hynes, of St. Catherine’s of Siena, a Catholic church in suburban Wilmington, Del. “The detail is unbelievable. It [the book] probably will be an original source for a long time to come.”
Dr. John A. Munroe, who holds the H. Rodney Sharp Chair of History at the University of Delaware, concurred.
“He’s traced the earliest Catholics on the whole peninsula with great care,” Munroe said. “It’s a very scholarly investigation of its subject.”
Hynes has known Peterman for 37 years – and remembers him doing research just as long. “We would visit each other … and go for walks in the country and he would be very conversant on these remote regions,” he said.
Peterman said, “It’s exciting to find things that haven’t been found before.”
Much of the research on his latest effort was conducted on days off from his pastoral duties at St. Dennis Church in Galena, in libraries and archives in Baltimore, Annapolis, Washington, D.C., and Dover, Del.
Peterman said he spent only as much time as he liked during each visit to prevent the research from becoming a chore. Writing would usually take place between 9 and 11 p.m.
“Definitely not past midnight,” Peterman said, as his nightly routine also includes walking his golden retriever and about half-an-hour of prayer.
The idea for the book came from a series of articles written by Peterman and published in The Dialogue, a newspaper that serves the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. The diocese encompasses Delaware, Maryland’s Eastern Shore and – until 1974 – the two counties on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
About one-third of the book stems from these articles, the first of which appeared seven years ago, Peterman said.
People who were clipping the articles began to ask Peterman when he’d publish them in book form.
“It stirred up a lot of interest,” Peterman said.
After Peterman graduated from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore in 1957, the Milford, Del., native went on for theological studies at the Catholic University of America.
It was there that the late Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, a renowned history professor, spurred Peterman on to research the life of Thomas A. Becker, the first bishop of the Wilmington Diocese. The subject became Peterman’s doctoral dissertation, completed in 1980 at Catholic.
“I began my research about 40 years ago when Monsignor Ellis told me, `get busy and write your diocese in history. You can do it and there’s plenty of rich history there for you to write,’ ” Peterman said.
“From a top man of that quality it was kind of a challenge. Not that many notable people had challenged me to do something,” the electrician’s son said.
Completing the doctorate, Peterman said, gave him the contacts and the confidence to research and write.
Researching the bishop’s life entailed three trips to the Vatican archives in Rome and visits to West Virginia, Georgia and other places the bishop had been.
“It was a pastime – an interest apart from my pastoral duties and teaching duties,” he said.
Before receiving his first appointment as pastor in Perryville, Md., in 1970, Peterman was a high school teacher and principal in Maryland and Delaware for more than 10 years.
“That’s a full-time involvement,” he said. “You’re at every game, you teach class … so that there were times in these years that I was taken completely away from history because I had other pressing duties.”
Peterman is also the author of “Priests of a Century,” which commemorated the 1968 centennial of the Wilmington diocese.
He said that he looks forward to completing two more books within the next 10 years.
One will be about all of the Catholic clergymen who have served the diocese. The second is a sequel to “Catholics in Colonial Delmarva.” It will take a look at Catholic immigrants – mostly French, Irish, Haitian and German – who came to the region between 1790 and 1865.
Has his interest in history interfered with his pastoral duties?
“I didn’t even know that he was writing a book,” said Helen Krenkel, 74, who attends services at St. Dennis. “Nothing ever interfered with anything he had to do with the parish.”
The work has not changed him, said The Rev. Douglas Dempster, who lives down the road from Peterman in Galena.
“He’s just a very hard-working, very humble, very scholarly priest,” he said. “He doesn’t try to blow his own trumpet, he just tries to make [history] come alive for the people.” – 30 –