ORRINGTON, Maine — The Rev. Robert Carlson was remembered Friday as a champion for the less fortunate, as a charismatic leader in local religious circles and as a chaplain to many area law enforcement agencies and fire departments.
His funeral on Friday drew an estimated 800 people from all walks of life to East Orrington Congregational Church, where Carlson, 68, had served as a senior pastor for more than two decades.
Mourners began streaming into the small white church two hours before the funeral’s 2 p.m. start, filling it to standing-room-only capacity. Media members were not allowed inside.
Among the most moving moments, according to some of those who attended, was a standing ovation in support of Carlson’s wife, Elaine, a spontaneous move led by Kenneth Schmidt, chief executive officer of Penobscot Community Health Care, a nonprofit organization serving everyone, regardless of ability to pay, that Carlson helped found.
“It was wonderful — it was a tribute to the man that he was,” said Sue Borden of Brewer, a granddaughter who attended with her sister Christina Vicnaire of Orrington.
“He was larger than life,” she said. “He was always ready with a joke and a hug.” His death, she said, leaves a void in community service that “will take 1,000 people to fill. I, for one, plan to step up and do my part,” she said, by signing up to do volunteer work.
While mourners described the service as a tribute to the good Carlson did through his decades of work as a clergyman and advocate for the poor and struggling, there was no easy way to sidestep the circumstances surrounding his death.
Carlson jumped to his death last weekend from the Penobscot Narrows Bridge which connects Hancock and Waldo counties. His body was found early last Sunday in the Penobscot River. Accusations that he sexually abused a young boy in the 1970s began to emerge the next day. Maine State Police continue to investigate the allegations.
Dan Scott of Eddington, a longtime friend who knew Carlson through his work in the health care and clerical fields, was among those who preferred to dwell on the positive aspects of Carlson’s legacy.
“What I’ll remember the most about Bob is that he did a lot of good for a lot of people,” he said while leaving the more than 90-minute funeral service.
“I appreciate all the concerns and sort of negative energy that surrounds all this but I think the thing I’d like to remember the most is that there isn’t any of us who doesn’t have a little dark place on us and there isn’t any of us who is going to get out of here alive,” he said.
“I don’t know what’s true. I don’t know what’s not true. I just knew Bob as a local clergyman who went out of his way to try to be helpful to people,” he said. “I think that Bob did what God expects of all of us and that is to minister to people.”
The Rev. Carl Schreiber, who presided at the funeral, said the event was aimed at helping his loved ones and others in the community begin the healing process.
“I believe we reached those that are hurting. I believe we reached those that may have been abused at one time, whether those allegations or accusations are right,” he said. “But it’s out in the media and so we have to address that in this situation.
“There are victims. If that’s the case, we’ll pray for them and correct that,” he said. “We recognize the hurt in the community. I don’t mind proclaiming that we’re all in the same boat. We’re a community of people.
“The church is made up of your neighbors, so we all hurt the same way but you can’t mask the good because of the bad and you can’t mask the bad because of the good.”