A few days before he died, Mike Harmon accomplished something that made him stand tall and proud. A newly ordained priest, the 71-year-old led the Christmas service at the Church of the Prince of Peace in Sanford, a small congregation that he helped establish more than a decade ago. He performed the ceremony in a vestment sewn by his wife, Margaret.

“It was such an important moment for him,” said the Rev. John Clifton. “It was such an accomplishment.”

A conservative columnist for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Harmon died Wednesday in a shooting at his home in Sanford. State and local police are investigating and have released few details. Harmon was showing a gun to a 16-year-old, who was handling it when it discharged, police said. Harmon’s family has described the shooting as accidental and declined to discuss it further.

Harmon, who was born in Buffalo, New York, grew up in Pennsylvania and came to Maine to study at Bowdoin College, graduating in 1967. After serving in the Army in Vietnam, he returned to Maine in 1969 and began working at the newspaper soon after, moving up the ranks from reporter. His opinion columns, which he began writing in the 1990s, elicited strong reader response, often on the issue of gun control.

“He was an opinionated man and a good man,” said his wife, Margaret Harmon. “People liked him. They might not agree with him, but they liked him.”

In addition to his wife, he is survived by three children from a previous marriage and two stepchildren, as well as several grandchildren and two siblings.

Harmon became an ordained priest this year, fulfilling a long-held goal that allowed him to take his passion for Christian teaching to a different level, Clifton said.

“Mike was a man who believed with all his heart that God gives you talents and abilities, and he gives you them for a reason. He gives them to you to serve, and your greatest fulfillment is to offer them to others,” Clifton said. “That’s what Mike did. He threw himself into everything he did, and everything he did, he did diligently and enthusiastically.”

Friends, colleagues and idealogical adversaries remembered Harmon as a man of principle and commitment, who consistently advanced Christian and conservative themes and opinions in his weekly newspaper column, which continued after his retirement in 2011. Over a 41-year career at the paper, he served in various roles including as city editor and editorial writer.

Tom Allen, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maine, remembered Harmon as a college friend and political sparring partner. They met in an English class at Bowdoin and remained friends. When Allen met with the newspaper’s editorial board as a lawmaker, he always knew Harmon would challenge him.

“We wound up disagreeing on our interpretation of Chaucer and we wound up disagreeing politically the rest of our lives, but I always thought Mike was a very decent human being,” Allen said. “Mike asked good questions and he took his job very seriously. I always enjoyed our conversations, and I always thought he was a thoughtful and intelligent person who grappled with the issues of the day.”

In his writing, Harmon returned to several topics consistently. He supported pro-Christian causes and was a staunch defender of the First Amendment. He was against gay marriage, doubtful of the science behind global warming and a strong supporter of gun rights.

Harmon was effective as a columnist because he argued his positions based on principle, not politics, said Portland Press Herald Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich. “He was not politically active and didn’t particularly care who won elections,” Kesich said. “He was more interested in what happened between elections. He spoke to a number of people in the readership who may have otherwise been left out of the conversation. He was a very strong national security conservative, he was a social conservative and he was an economic conservative. He did not waver on any of these things, and he would write strong, well-argued opinions.”

Soon after becoming a columnist, Harmon arrived at work to find a spray-painted message – “Fire Mike Harmon” – on the side of the newspaper’s former building at 390 Congress St.

“He was always quite proud of that,” Kesich said. “He always got a strong response, because he argued in a strong way.”

Carroll Conley Jr. was shocked when he encountered Harmon for the first time in 2010. Conley had just become director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, and Harmon called requesting an interview. Conley, who lived in northern Maine and was not familiar with Harmon’s writing, was surprised to find such a conservative voice in the community. They became friends, and Conley supported Harmon in his effort to become ordained. “From a human perspective, what I feel now is just sadness,” Conley said.

Ideologically, it will be difficult to replace such a respected and established voice in the community, he added. “He was an asset to the state and to the kingdom of God. We will miss Mike’s voice,” Conley said.

Tom Waddell, director of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, met Harmon at a rally in Augusta where the Rev. Franklin Graham was speaking. Waddell was there to protest Graham’s appearance. Harmon was writing about the rally and interviewed Waddell for his column. “Although we were on opposite sides, as was usually the case, Mike was upfront and honest about his perspective and accurately quoted my dissenting opinion in his column,” Waddell said. “I feel Mike was a man of solid character who had no hidden agendas and reported on events the way he saw them. He will be missed.”

He will be missed in ways that most people won’t see, Clifton said. At least once a year, Harmon went to the state prison in Warren to “share the message of God and offer hope and a chance for renewal,” he said. And most Saturdays, Harmon would sit on a park bench in Sanford with a sign that read, “Father Michael Will Talk for Free.” He wanted people to come to him with their problems, his wife said.

“He met a lot of interesting people with a lot of different problems,” she said. “He would pray with them and try to help them out.”

Harmon also taught English and history at his church school, and he was thrilled at becoming ordained because it allowed him to reach people in new ways, through the ministry, Clifton said.

“Mike took his faith seriously,” Clifton said. “It was a fundamental part of his life. His death is a loss not just to our church, but to the entire Christian community.”