by JEFF DILLON
Performing at a high level for 50 years has all been taken in his stride by Dunedin diocesan priest Msgr John Harrison. Born the eldest of eight children in 1946, he was built more for running than rugby. In fact, he was to get involved as a competitive athletic harrier in his late teens. Before he got seriously involved in that passion, he grew up in the St Peter Chanel parish in the southern suburban approaches of Dunedin.
As a new parish, it had neither a proper church nor any school, so he started school at St Francis Xavier in Mornington in the early 1950s. Then, in 1955, he was drafted off to the junior boys’ school of St Edmond’s, run by the Christian Brothers in South Dunedin.
It was here that he first recalls hearing a formal appeal to consider a religious vocation by a brother whose job it was to go to schools run by the Christian Brothers promoting vocations to the religious life.
The idea of becoming a priest was aided also by the needs of the young, developing parish in which he was growing up. He recalls hearing his grandfather say many times that he was “looking for the day when it would be possible to have a weekday Mass in the parish.” Fr Harrison acknowledged the role of being an altar server as helping in his vocation journey.
However, while the thought was there through his secondary schooling at Christian Brothers’ High School, he had some reservations, and left at the end of the 6th Form (Year 12) in 1963 and began work at the BNZ in 1964. He admits that he had hoped to avoid exams, but on his first day in the new job he was informed that the new recruits would be expected to do some studies and sit exams.
Give it a go
His training at the bank did come in handy later when he was a priest, but the niggling thought about a vocation led to his decision to leave the bank in 1966 and “give it a go”.
His parents also are given credit for supporting him. He had told his mother one day what he was intending to do. He had then gone out that evening to a Harrier Club “do” and crept home in the early hours only to be foiled by a squeaky floorboard. His father called him and just said “it’s a big decision, but the door’s always open”.
Unbeknown to him, his younger brother Tony had also made the decision to go to the seminary, so the pair of them ended up attending Holy Name Seminary in Christchurch, where they started with a class of 40. That class was down to 20 by the end of that first year.
Since John was regarded in those days as a “late” vocation, because he had been at work for two years, he was moved on to the seminary at Mosgiel at the beginning of 1968, and was ordained in 1971. This year marks his 50th jubilee.
Some brief temporary appointments followed until he was appointed as an assistant at Gore in 1972. In 1974, he was contacted by Bishop Kavanagh and informed that he wanted him to do some University of Otago studies in social work. To be closer to Dunedin, he was shifted to Oamaru. There, he became also a chaplain to Teschmakers and St Kevin’s secondary schools. He was then moved to Dunedin in July/August 1975, initially to St Francis Xavier covering while his uncle, Fr Pat McAleese, was overseas. Then to St Patrick’s in South Dunedin and chaplain to Moreau College. He retained that chaplain role when he moved to St Bernadette’s in 1982. His next move in 1983 took him to St Mary’s in Kaikorai, and he took on the responsibility for Catholic Social Services, prison chaplain, and youth. He was appointed as parish priest at Holy Name in 1986, while continuing with his other duties. He was there until the middle of 1990, when he was sent to Ottawa, Canada, to study canon law, and he returned two years later to St Francis Xavier. In 1995, he headed to Mosgiel, then back to St Bernadette’s as parish priest in 1998. In between those positions he had also become the assistant chancellor and was doing a bit of marriage tribunal work too. He moved again in 2002 to Port Chalmers, during which time he became the chancellor of the diocese, and four years later was moved to the cathedral, where he remained parish priest until late 2020. At 75, he is now an assistant priest at the cathedral and is still the chancellor.
Along the way, he became associate judicial vicar, police chaplain, and chaplain to the American Antarctic programme. He has been to the Antarctic about seven times over the years.
He is a firm believer that, if you are doing God’s work, then God will give you what you need. He can recall many occasions, when dealing with people in difficult situations, where he was prompted to say something, and then he pondered afterwards about the source of that inspiration.
His dedication and efforts for the diocese were recognised when he was made a Monsignor in 2012, during Bishop Colin Campbell’s tenure.
As a balance to all his duties, he managed along the way to fit in his interest in competitive running as a member of the Caversham Harriers Club, of which he was made a life member about a year ago. Unfortunately, a back injury some years ago robbed him of his enjoyment of “pounding the pavement”, but he maintained his connection through an administrative role.
He recalled being on one run when his professional knowledge was requested by one of his fellow runners as they were powering along George Street. So a discussion ensued about how to get baptised which eventually took place and the fellow became a Catholic. It was a case of evangelisation on the run.
He has found a similar response through his involvement with a group of modellers in a plastic model club. Members sometimes come up to him on a meeting night and ask his professional opinion about questions or issues that are on their minds.
Msgr Harrison admits to having a hanger-and-a-half of models. He estimates he has about a thousand, with more unmade than made. His main focus is on planes, which developed when he was aged about 10 at St Edmund’s. A brother at the school ran a model-making club.
He enjoys the mental challenge as “it keeps the mind active and helps the motor skills, the dexterity”. He also enjoys the fact that “you have created something….it is quite relaxing except when you drop a piece on the floor”. He likes to research information about particular models he makes. At the moment, he has about eight models on the go, in various stages on the production line.
Family links in Dunedin, and also overseas such as Ireland and England, are another important part of his interests beyond his busy life as a priest.
Reflecting on his fifty years as a priest, he is surprised at how his early concept of what the role involved has had to adjust to all the aspects he experienced. When he was ordained, he recalled a telegram he had from then Fr Cullinane (later Bishop) which said “You’ll enjoy His work if you enjoy His company”, which highlighted the importance of a prayer life. He enjoyed pastoral work.
Materialism had been a big change in Fr Harrison’s 50 years as a priest. He noted that you hear people say that they don’t go to Mass on Sunday because it is family day. He observed that, if we gather there to celebrate Mass, we gather there as the family of God.