John Tenhula

April 12, 1950October 19, 2018

For 68 years, John Tenhula led a life of dedicated service to others. He died after a multi-year battle with cancer on October 19th, while at the Care Dimensions Hospice House in Lincoln, MA.

John was the son of John and Mary (Sandor) Tenhula, who raised him in Bessemer, PA, on the Ohio state border. He took lessons from his rural adolescence when he chose city life for college and adulthood—although his winning 4-H project “Slotted Floors for Fewer Chores” failed to provide much urban insight.

John took his undergraduate degree at Temple University in Philadelphia, earned his PhD in International Relations at Columbia University in New York, and obtained a Juris Doctor degree from the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, DC. Later, finding a new path of service, John received his Master of Divinity degree from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. In 2010, John was ordained a non-denominational Protestant Minister at Riverside Church in New York.

He leveraged his many degrees—and formidable talents—to help others. He started as a Legal Officer for the United National High Commissioner for Refugees, and was seconded to Lutheran World Relief to manage the NGO cross-border refugee program and oversee the USAID contracts in the Sudan. He then secured church sponsorships for families under the national Southeast Asian Refugee Program while working for the World Council of Churches. As CEO of the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies in Philadelphia, he continued to focus the nation’s attention on the needs of refugees and immigrants. While at the Balch, John was also appointed to Philadelphia’s Fair Housing Commission. After his ordination and moving to Boston, John served as a prison Chaplain in both the Rhode Island and Massachusetts penitentiary systems, as well as a Chaplain at Boston’s Shattuck Hospital—who honored him as Chaplain of the Year in 2017.

Though often charged extra for the privilege, he enjoyed helping contractors with building and renovation projects at his weekend home in Greenwood Lake, NY. His zest for life led him to travel, where he embraced the opportunity for dialogue with people at home in different cultures around the globe. Late in his life he became a prolific sculptor and writer. He is the author of three books, many poems, and several Op Ed pieces published in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Providence Journal, among others. His second book, Cell Wars, an Oral History of Cancer Today, was born of his ongoing search for answers—even while battling the disease himself. As a result of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court 2004 ruling permitting same-sex marriage, John wed his long-time partner Todd Estabrook in August of that year.

John is survived by his sister, Susan Tenhula Spigelski and nieces Dina and Lea, of Montreal, Quebec, niece Caroline of Toronto, Ontario, brother Paul Tenhula of Bessemer, PA, as well as his husband Todd and their dogs, Lucy and Ethel, of Boston, MA.

A memorial service celebrating John Tenhula’s life will be held at Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square on Saturday November 17, 2018 at 3:00pm in the afternoon. A reception will follow the service at the University Club of Boston. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to NEADS Prison Pups program.


  • Memorial Service Saturday, November 17, 2018

John Tenhula

have a memory or condolence to add?

Harold Sutherland

October 30, 2018

I met John when he was working for Church World Service in the early 1980s. Member protestant denominations in Northern California invited John to come and be a part of our outreach into several communities. John was our national resource person to help explain where refugees were coming and what was creating refugees around the world. I spent a few hours driving around the area with John. We shared with each other on those car rides and we became friends who visited each other throughout the years. I will miss John's calls and visits. I had no idea that his cancer had come back so strongly. Rest in peace, Dear John. May Todd and your bigger circles of family and friends be comforted at this time of loss. May the wonderful memories of wonderful times with you comfort us all.