To see the cabin hidden in a heavily wooded area of Bartholomew County a few miles east of Brown County State Park, one could easily surmise it belongs to someone living off the grid.
The Rev. Marty Peter, 76, would laugh at that, just the way he often chuckles about various aspects of his semi-retirement after recently marking 50 years as a Roman Catholic priest. Although it’s true that his old-fashioned, flip cellphone sometimes struggles to find a signal amid the hills and thick surrounding of poplars, oak, beech and maple trees on the wild, 40 acres of property he co-owns with 1954 Milan High School state basketball championship hero Bobby Plump.
But Peter remains connected to ministry as much as Plump remains connected to hoops.
“I have deep within my heart a sense of ministry,” he said. “I have retired from administrative duties, but I have not retired from being a Christian.”
Story continues below gallery
He recently sat on his expansive deck overlooking the two-acre lake on Sawmill Road. Birds calling, cicadas harmonizing and the breeze rustling the trees formed the only sounds.
An engraved sign over the cabin’s back door reads “Marty’s Heaven On Earth.”
When your life has been dedicated to ministry, heaven hardly surfaces as a light reference, mind you.
“This is Walden Pond,” he said, beaming while making a reference to the natural, tranquil area in Concord, Massachusetts, that Henry David Thoreau praised.
These days, Peter leaves what served as his comfortable getaway 40 years ago to assist with Masses and other ministry at area Catholic churches such as St. Bartholomew and others in places such as Edinburgh, Seymour and North Vernon. His 2008 Honda CR-V four-wheel drive vehicle, the one with the prominent “I love Pope Francis” bumper sticker, gets the Tell City native through the snowiest terrain of the rustic area in winter.
In a world where many religious leaders suffer burnout, Peter’s passion still burns over a wide spectrum of issues after a lifetime of ministry mostly in Indianapolis area parishes.
A few years ago, when Congress was finalizing a budget that included cuts for a range of programs for the poor, he fired off a letter to the editor of The Republic protesting such — and earned a few thank-yous from readers in the Orchids column in the days that followed.
When he speaks, he readily quotes Scripture and socially-conscious leaders such as the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
He found himself involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s in Washington, D.C. while in seminary at Catholic University of America. And he has held fast to a gospel of social justice. For instance, in the 1980s, when an Indianapolis country club refused to admit blacks as members, he and his parishioners picketed in front of the place until changes were made.
“Every person is a child of God,” he said. “And that’s true whether you belong to a church or not, or whether you’re a Christian or a Muslim or anything else.”
Cousin and fellow Catholic David Harpenau has long admired Peter’s work.
“Two things really distinguish Marty,” Harpenau said. “He’s a person who builds community. He’s gone into parishes and done that very well. And he really is a person of justice.”
You seem to be careful to avoid a legalistic approach to your Christianity.
I’m part of local ecumenical ministers group that meets regularly. We know that everything’s not black and white. We see the gray areas. So often today in society, people tend to demonize people who may be different from them or categorize people in a limited way and write them off. But I was raised in a family that was very open-minded.
How do you want people to see you?
I simply want to be able to show the world in word and deed the compassion and the love of Christ. It was St. John who said, “God is love.”
Some people seem to have pushed some groups, whether political or those with a different sexual orientation, to the margins. What’s your feeling?
Jesus was constantly reaching out to all people. It seemed like he liked to be with sinners more than others. When we learn to love people right where they are, all kinds of progress can be made. And a lot of good things can happen.
Too many times, in the name of religion, we exclude people. That’s never been what the gospel is talking about. There is a tendency for people today to be very partisan.
What about married priests? You already mentioned that Catholic priests were married for the first 11 centuries.
I’ve been in favor of it for years. And I believe the vast majority of Catholics see it as making sense.
You seem to speak very straightforwardly.
I think people appreciate my honesty. But I hope that I regularly speak in love.
And I believe we should speak the truth — but always with the realization that something that we’ve said could be wrong. Pope Francis regularly says, “I, too, am a sinner.”
Besides being a people lover, you also love animals?
Oh, I love dogs (and used to have two). People who live around me used to call me the St. Francis of Sawmill Road because I was always picking up strays.
What’s one bit of guidance you might offer others?
A priest friend presented me with a Bible at the time of my ordination. Inside it, he wrote, “May you comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Ultimately, our faith requires both. And Jesus preached both.
Born: Tell City.
Ordination: May 7, 1967 at St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana.
Lives: In rural Bartholomew County beyond Ogilville for the past 12 years.
Current role: Semi-retired Catholic priest, one of three in the Indianapolis Archdiocese to have been ordained for at least 50 years; assists at area church Masses, confessions, visiting the sick and in other duties.
Ministry posts through the years: Various assistant pastor and pastor roles at St. Pius X, Indianapolis; St. Thomas Aquinas, Indianapolis; chaplain, Newman Center, Butler University, Indianapolis; and St. Paul Catholic Center, Bloomington.
Community roles of compassion: Have included posts such as serving as chairman of Marion County Mental Health Board.
Hobby: Traveling, including excursions through Europe.