Father Theodore Petersen, CSP, was born in Madras, India, to German Lutheran missionaries, Theodore Petersen was sent back to Germany to complete his education. At a young age he began to study and master Latin and Greek. After completing his basic education he enrolled in the Lutheran seminary where in his final year, after reading a book on freedom and grace by a Jesuit, he converted to Catholicism.
Initially attracted to ministering to German immigrants in the American Midwest, he left Germany and came to the U.S. where he met the Paulists. He entered the community and was professed on December 21, 1911 and ordained on May 24, 1912.
After his ordination Father Petersen remained in Washington to complete his doctorate in Coptic, Arabic and Sanskrit languages in 1913. The following year he added a licentiate in scripture.
After teaching a short time he undertook pastoral work in Austin, Chicago and Portland. (During WWI the Paulist superiors feared his German origins might lead to his arrest and incarceration.) In 1919 he returned to St. Paul's College as a professor of scripture remaining there until 1925 when he was assigned to Berkeley.
He returned to academia in 1929 helping to organize the Coptic manuscripts of the Morgan Library in New York City. In the 1930's he had pastoral assignments at Oak Ridge, Toronto and New York before becoming Chair of the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages at Catholic University in 1941.
He retired from CUA in 1948 but continued his research while assigned in Clemson and Boston. He returned for good to Washington in 1952 where he lived, taught and researched until his death in 1966 after nearly 55 years as a Paulist priest. He is buried in Baltimore.
His friend and associate Father Eugene Burke, CSP, remembered that Father Petersen's life revolved around two poles -- as a linguistic scholar and a Paulist priest -- and yet neither profession suffered. His scholarship and learning were legendary: "it was the realization that came through conference and lecture and conversation of a mind trained in research with a wealth of information and understanding that ranged over an awesome number of areas." His spirituality was legion: "with all of this he was totally a priest, totally a servant of the Paulist vision of a religious priest. As a teacher, as a pastor, as a curate even in his very late years, as a missionary, as a Newman Club chaplain, he had a deep and unforgettable impact wherever he worked."
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