One Sunday, the Rev. Peter G. Tierney, III, rector of in Little Compton, looked out at the congregation and saw a clergyman worshipping with them. About halfway through the service, he recognized the Rev. Vince Scotto, who served at his hometown church when he was a boy.
“He taught me The Lord’s Prayer and gave me First Communion,” he said.
Peter’s journey to priesthood had come full circle.
Born into the Episcopalian faith, Peter was raised in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York in the rural village of Penn Yan.
“My mother grew up as an Episcopalian,” he said. “My father was baptized in the Catholic Church, but his parents divorced very early when he was a boy in the ‘50s, and he was mostly raised as a Presbyterian.”
Peter’s parish, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, had a great influence on his formative years.
“They really had wonderful clergy,” he said, remembering his first rector, Vince Scotto, who accepted a call to a church in Florida when he was about seven years old.
Peter was very active in Sunday School, Christmas pageants, and passion plays during Holy Week. He also served as an acolyte.
There was a significant event in the life of the parish that Peter looked forward to every year. The Rev. Pat Haner had started a one-week summer arts camp, which would draw artists, musicians and playwrights.
“The camp was not overtly Christian in the sense that it was not the primary function, but it was in the atmosphere,” he said. “We would say grace at meals, go to communion service. But the focus was on creativity.”
Peter began as a camper and eventually became a counselor.
“That kept my foot in the church when I wasn’t worshipping every Sunday,” he said.
At the time, the Rev. Al Strivers was serving as interim minister at St. Mark’s.
“He was one of the holiest people that I have ever known,” said Peter. “He just radiated the love of God.”
One Sunday the minister approached the 16-year-old.
“He asked me if I ever thought about becoming a priest,” recalled Peter. “I said absolutely not.”
It was a challenging time for the teen. He was accepted at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he majored in English and Creative Writing, but the college was not a good fit.
“I hadn’t any sense of purpose, and that really took its toll,” he said. “I completed three and a half years, but never finished a full course load any semester. I took a leave of absence. I was nowhere near finishing the requirements for a degree.”
Peter stayed in Pittsburgh for a year, working at odd jobs, then moved back home to New York.
He took a job as a night clerk at a hotel and did substitute teaching. Then his father found him a job as a travelling salesman, selling repair manuals to garages and mechanics. He was 23 years old at the time.
“I was horrible,” he said. “I had no knowledge of the product and had to talk to people around cars every day. I was no good at it.”
Heading to Pittsburgh to visit college friends, Peter planned to make sales calls all the way through New York along Route 17.
“I stopped at one garage, and then the next thing I knew I was just continuing to go and not making any more stops. At the same moment I realized I was weeping,” he said.” I had the unmistakable sense that God was in the car with me and that this was not what I was supposed to be doing with my life. In that moment of prayer – conversation with God – it was very much two-way and very clear communication, I had to take stock.”
When he returned from Pittsburgh, he made an appointment with the Rev. Martha Hubbard, the current rector at St. Mark’s.
“I had no idea what it would entail,” he said. “I just knew that this was something I would do. I hadn’t been going to church, and I started going immediately.”
After speaking with the priest, Peter acknowledged that he had to return to college and finish up his bachelor’s degree.
“At that point my parents weren’t going to fund my college education, and I had no money,” he said. “But the Lord was fairly clear, and I needed to at least try.”
Peter applied for a secretarial job at Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, NY, where he thought he might work while accumulating credits part-time.
“When I went to the interview, the woman took one look at me and said I was not really the sort of person who would normally apply for the job and that I looked more like a student,” he said.
Peter spoke to the college chaplain who urged him to apply. Hobart also offered a generous financial aid program.
“I thought I would try, but even if I did get in, I didn’t know how I would make it,” he said.
Peter was admitted and received an excellent financial aid package.
“I took out a few loans, but it was doable,” he said. “In two wonderful years I finished up my degree.”
He graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in English.
Peter applied to Yale Divinity School in New Haven, CT, and was admitted.
“But when the financial aid offer came, it was not realistically enough for me to attend,” he said. “So I called, and they said they would take a look to see what they could do.”
A few days later, they called to inform him that he was the recipient of a new fellowship that would cover the entire cost of tuition, as well as provide a stipend.
“I went from not being able to afford divinity school to being paid to go to divinity school,” he said. “That settled it. God made this thing possible for me, and off I went.”
He graduated summa cum laude with a master’s degree in Divinity and earned a second master’s degree in Sacred Theology.
Peter also met his wife, Veronica, at Yale. She is the assistant chaplain at St. George’s School in Newport and a Ph.D. candidate at Boston College.
After serving for three years as the curate of Christ Episcopal Church in Needham, Peter sent out his resume to ten churches in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
“St. Andrew’s got out in front,” he said. “It was the parish that I was most excited about. It felt right all along.”
Peter became the rector of St. Andrew’s on Sept. 1, 2010.
It has been a long and challenging road to priesthood for Peter, from the budding faith of his youth, the five years of drifting, the calling, the acceptance, and the dedication of his life to service in the name of Jesus Christ.
The arrival of his boyhood rector that Sunday morning pointed out just how far he had come.
“I hadn’t seen him in 25 years,” Peter said. “It was one of the special moments of my ministry.”