The Rev. Arthur Caliandro, former senior minister of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, known for his progressive initiatives to unite people of all faiths and welcome gay and lesbian congregants, died Sunday. He was 79.

The Rev. Caliandro, who was known as “the people’s minister,” grew up in Portland and served as a guest minister at several local churches. He summered on Long Island for many years and recently had a condo at Breakwater at Spring Point in South Portland.

Most of the sermons the Rev. Caliandro gave as head of Collegiate Church were written in Maine.

The Rev. Caliandro became an associate pastor at Marble Collegiate Church in 1967.

In 1984, he succeeded the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale as senior minister. He was formally installed in 1985 as the 46th senior pastor of one of America’s oldest and most prominent Protestant churches, located on Fifth Avenue. He served there until 2009.

In his 42 years in the pulpit, the Rev. Caliandro shepherded numerous initiatives to unite people of different faiths and economic and social backgrounds. He founded an interfaith partnership of Protestant, Jewish, Catholic and Muslim religious leaders. He was the first to appoint a woman to the church board. In the 1990s, he gave gay members a meeting space in the church — a move that caused 150 congregants to resign in protest, according to a 2009 New York Times news story.

A statement posted on the church’s website notes his reputation for offering “a positive, non-judgmental setting,” where people could explore their faith.

“Arthur was a precious gift to the people of Marble and to people all over the world and will be sorely missed,” the Rev. Michael Brown, senior minister of Marble Collegiate Church, said in a statement.

The Rev. Caliandro grew up on Munjoy Hill in Portland, a son of the Rev. Thomaso Caliandro and Frances Caliandro. His father founded the former Italian Methodist Church in Portland. His two brothers, Bruno Caliandro and Earnest Caliandro, also became Methodist ministers.

The Rev. Caliandro summered in Maine his whole life. For many years, he would retreat to his home on Long Island, where he enjoyed boating in Casco Bay and spending time with family. In his later years, he summered in South Portland.

His family said Friday that he loved Maine and considered it home. He served as a guest pastor at several churches across the state. He often sat near the ocean to write the sermons he would give in New York and Maine.

“He wrote a year’s worth of sermons every summer,” said his niece, Ann Caliandro of Long Island. “Maine was the inspiration for pretty much all of his sermons.”

The Rev. Caliandro was remembered this week for offering congregants a place to share their hopes and fears.

He earned the respect of many prominent figures, such as actor Michael J. Fox, news anchors Brian Williams and Peter Jennings, TV reporter Lesley Stahl and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He presided over the weddings of Donald Trump and Marla Maples, and Liza Minnelli and David Gest.

“He was a very important man in that world, too,” said his wife, Sandra Caliandro of Manhattan. “All these people came to speak with him. He talked to them about peace, faith and forgivingness. … He was so humble. He never lost that humble immigrant spirit.”

The Rev. Caliandro had Parkinson’s disease and macular degeneration. In his retirement, he spent more time at his home in South Portland. The couple frequented Joe’s Boathouse and Saltwater Grille. His wife recalled with comfort the days he would sit in his La-Z-Boy in their living room and stare out at the water. She said he found peace in Maine. His wife said she will miss his warmth.

“His warmth was all enveloping,” she said. “He had this aura of peace. … When you were with him, you felt peaceful. … It was like his spirit put its arms around you and you felt OK in his presence.”

The Rev. Caliandro’s full obituary will appear in Sunday’s newspaper.

 

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:

mcreamer@pressherald.com