The Riverdale Center for Religious Research

Photo by Gretchen McHugh

The Riverdale Center for Religious Research where Thomas lived was a beautiful old Victorian house along the Hudson River just north of Manhattan. We would gather there under the spreading limbs of a four-hundred-year-old red oak and across from the two-hundred-million-year-old rock cliffs of the Palisades. There, for three decades, friendships were formed, talks were held, and lasting memories were made. From this Center, Thomas journeyed out in an increasingly global arc, speaking of his vision of the interdependence of the living Earth community.

His library at the Center reflected his passion for breadth and depth. Over the years, Thomas had collected some ten thousand books and now bedecked this rambling old house with his treasures. In the large front room the Latin Church Fathers faced the Greek philosophers and the Chinese sages, all in their original languages. The Sanskrit texts of the Hindu Classics were in the next room and Thomas initiated many of us into the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit before we read the other Indian texts. Some of his students wrote dissertations that were translations of these texts with original interpretive commentaries.

Not only did his library hold the classical scriptures of the Asian and Abrahamic religions; it was also filled with ethnographies and studies of indigenous peoples. Upstairs overlooking the Hudson was the American Indian room, stacked from floor to ceiling with books on the various tribes that populated the North American continent. This was John’s favorite haunt, as the sun porch was Mary Evelyn’s. There on the porch we would join Thomas for lunch or dinner. Music such as Beethoven’s Archduke Concerto provided the background for our conversations that ranged from the state of the world to the state of Sung China, Heian Japan, or Moghul India.

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Historian of World Religions