“Together we are the Church

May 13-19, 2004
VOL 123 NO. 19
“Together we are the Church
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch & Archives
Friends and Colleagues Look Back on the Life of Bishop Frank Harrison

Also by Eileen Jevis and Kristen Fox SUN staff writers

“For you, I am a bishop, but with you I am a Christian.” St. Augustine spoke those words centuries ago, but they could just as easily have come from the mouth of Bishop Frank Harrison. Bishop Frank Harrison died on May 1 at the age of 91. The seventh bishop of the Syracuse Diocese, he was the only bishop the people of Syracuse could call “native son.” His installation as bishop in 1977 attracted such an enormous crowd that it took place at the War Memorial rather than the Cathedral. He attended school in Syracuse, he played ball in Syracuse, his family worshipped in Syracuse and they are buried in Syracuse. Bishop Harrison structured the diocese into four regions and he was familiar with each one. His motto was “Unity in Christ” and it reflected his priesthood and his life. He brought people together, and once they were together, they were led so well that they accomplished an amazing amount of good for the people all across the diocese.

Bishop Harrison was a sort of “every man’s” man. He loved a good baseball game and followed the athletic teams of the Catholic schools of the diocese as well as any grandfather would. He once played golf with Bob Hope and he played golf with the priests of the diocese. Bishop Harrison was quick with a smile and remembered names of people he’d met only once. A symbol of the unity he proclaimed was evident when all the parishes of the diocese were called upon to provide cookies for the bishop’s reception after his installation. Each parish had to bake about 150 cookies to come up with the 20,000 required for the event. Most likely, they were happy to do it. His life was full and Bishop Harrison managed to guide the Syracuse Diocese through the changes of Vatican II, renewing the spirit within the laity. The Syracuse Diocese is richer and more compassionate because of his leadership and example. Maybe because he loved sports so much, he knew the meaning of teamwork and asked others to share their talents so that the unified “team” could prevail. His story is a hope-filled one, about a man who decided to use his talents to serve God and the Church –– instead of the baseball team at Notre Dame. It was a decision that changed the diocese.

Bishop Harrison was born August 20, 1912 in Syracuse, the son of Frank James Harrison and Mary Elizabeth Flynn Harrison and was one of six children. He graduated valedictorian from St. Lucy’s Academy High School, where he was a star baseball player and president of his class. He also played basketball at the school. Bishop Harrison attended Notre Dame University, leaving after two years to enter St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, N.Y. He was ordained at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Rochester on June 4, 1937 by Edward Cardinal Mooney. On June 25, he was appointed an assistant at Catholic Charities. Bishop Harrison acquired his love of baseball and people from his father, Frank, who often took him to ballgames in old Star Park, where Bishop Harrison would meet the pros and bone up on the game. He carried his love of sports with him throughout his life. His first appointment took him briefly to St. Mary of Mount Carmel in Utica and then to St. Mary’s in Binghamton as assistant pastor under Father Dennis Flynn. In Feb. 1940 he was assigned to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception where he served as assistant pastor for over 16 years under the rectorship of Msgr. James McPeak.

During his tenure at the Cathedral, Bishop Harrison acted not only as supporter and athletic enthusiast, he also served as athletic director at Cathedral Academy. “He has been a part of my life since I was in grammar school,” said Msgr. Charles Fahey. “I remember him sitting on the sidelines during the basketball games.” Sister Maureen D’Onofrio, CSJ, also has fond memories of Bishop Harrison when he was assistant pastor and teacher at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. She was a student at Cathedral at the time. “He was always very interested in our school,” she said. “He attended the pep rallies and sports games. I remember him yelling, ‘Footwork! Footwork!’ to the boys during the football games,” said Sister Maureen. “He was a great sportsman.” “I remember him telling a story about coaching baseball,” said Father Richard Kopp, who worked as assistant chancellor, secretary and chancellor under Bishop Harrison. “He would instruct a child to run on the next pitch. The pitch went out and the child didn’t move. When Bishop Harrison asked him why he hadn’t run, the child would say, ‘I forgot.’ What do you say after that?” Bishop Harrison said. Father Phil Keane, a professor at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, attended Cathedral School in the 1950s. “I can remember him on the baseball field coaching the school team and I can remember him trying to recruit good basketball players from the parochial grammar schools so we could beat the other teams,” said Father Keane in his homily given on May 4. “No one who was there will ever forget the pep rallies he led before our big games,” he said.

In addition to coaching sports, Bishop Harrison focused on educating students in Latin, public speaking and religion. Father Keane shared a personal story about the impact Bishop Harrison made on him and his choice to enter the priesthood. “In the spring of 1956 when I was finishing my first year of high school, Bishop Harrison finally ended his 16 years of service as an assistant pastor at the Cathedral,” said Father Keane. “Before leaving, he spent some time working with the other assistant priests, making sure that they were aware of the many responsibilities he had borne as senior assistant,” he explained. “He told Father Joe Kane that there was a kid in the high school who he was quite positive had a vocation to the priesthood. Bishop Harrison wanted Father Joe and the other assistants to keep careful watch over the kid and do whatever they could do to nourish his vocation,” said Father Keane. “That kid was me.” Father Keane didn’t hear that story until 35 years after it happened. While he didn’t think about entering the seminary until several years later, Father Keane said that this wonderful priest and bishop had figured it out correctly. While serving at the Cathedral, Bishop Harrison was named chaplain of the Syracuse Fire Deptartment and was part of every major fire during his term in office. He also served as a tribunal examiner and judge and in June 1956 was appointed the first pastor of St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Syracuse.

The church had been built by Msgr. Charles McAvoy and served as a mission of St. Anthony’s on Syracuse’s south side. Bishop Harrison took up residence at St. Pius X Hall and set up a parish office in the church. While at St. Andrew’s, Bishop Harrison celebrated his silver jubilee of ordination in June 1962. A Mass of celebration took place with his brother, Father John Harrison, and his childhood friend, Father John Carey. In September 1963, Bishop Harrison was transferred to St. Patrick’s Parish in Binghamton to fill the position vacated by the illness of Msgr. Francis Curtin. Father Robert Yaezel worked with Bishop Harrison for three years at St. Patrick’s Parish. He also served as his secretary for two years in both in Binghamton when Bishop Harrison was named auxiliary bishop and in Syracuse as ordinary. “This man was filled with the Lord’s presence. He was holy, he proclaimed holiness, he was filled with holiness and encouraged us to be holy,” said Father Yaezel. “He was generous and kind and always thinking about others.” Father Yeazel said that Bishop Harrison always showed concern for people who thought they were not good in their lives, who thought God did not love them. “He always tried to dispel that,” said Father Yaezel. “His message was that God doesn’t love us based on what we do, but rather on who we are and therefore, everyone is loved by God,” he said.

In the fall of 1963, Bishop Harrison was designated dean of Broome, Chenango and Cortland Counties. That same year, he was appointed a domestic prelate by Pope Paul VI with the title of Rt. Reverend Monsignor and named Vicar for Religious in the diocese. Father John Fetcho, pastor of Our Lady of Peace in Syracuse, served with Bishop Harrison at St. Patrick’s Church in Binghamton. It was his first assignment upon his ordination in 1964. “I always looked upon him as a great priest and a real spokesman for the church,” said Father Fetcho. “We enjoyed playing golf together at Binghamton Country Club. He always played in all the priest tournaments –– he never missed one,” he said. In 1965, Bishop Harrison joined the board of consultors of the diocese. The committee serves as advisors to the bishops on major diocesan decisions. He was also appointed to priests’ CCD executive committee.

On March 1, 1971, Msgr. Harrison was consecrated as Auxiliary Bishop of the Syracuse Diocese by Bishop David F. Cunningham of Syracuse. Cardinal Terence Cooke, Archbishop of New York ,presided. Bishop Frank Harrison served as auxiliary bishop for five and a half years under the episcopacy of Bishop David Cunningham and served as vicar general for four of those years. He also maintained his role as pastor of St. Patrick’s in Binghamton and was named pastor of St. James in Syracuse in 1974. He served alongside Bishop Cunningham gaining insight that would carry over into his own service as ordinary. Upon Bishop Cunningham’s retirement at age 75, Pope Paul VI appointed Bishop Harrison as his successor. With an installation ceremony that included Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York City, retired diocesan Bishops Walter Foery and David Cunningham, 20 other bishops and Archbishop Jean Jadot, apostolic delegate of Pope Paul VI, Bishop Frank Harrison began his tenure as ordinary on Feb. 6, 1977. Over 8,000 people were in attendance at Syracuse’s War Memorial that day. In his remarks, Bishop Harrison asked the people of the diocese to help him carry out his mission of “Unity In Christ.” He went to work immediately. The regional structure the diocese now has began under his guiding hand. He also created the positions of administrative vicariates for those regions. Bishop Harrison authored a pastoral letter in 1978, “We are the Church.” In it he proposed that the Catholic Church is where people search for “The possibility of community. Through the example of its own life, the Church’s call is to demonstrate to society at large the power of trust and the wealth of diversity. To neighborhoods it is to profess the joy of togetherness and the strength of mutual cooperation. To families, its task is to foster the intimacy of marriage, the fulfillment of parenting, and the happiness in sharing life with others.”

He highlighted the church’s mission in the letter: to announce the Good News, to foster Christian growth, to be community, to pray, to serve those in need, to teach the truth and to provide leadership. To bring about that mission, Bishop Harrison reached out to the people of the diocese. Msgr. Ronald Bill was a golf companion and friend to the bishop. He remembered Bishop Harrison’s leadership style. “He was a great man to work for,” Msgr. Bill said. “He was easy going and he wasn’t afraid to let you take a chance on things.” Father James O’Brien, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Syracuse, said that Bishop Harrison encouraged people to use their talents and gifts. “Bishop Harrison was great to work for and with because he had an unusual gift of being able to accept the gifts of others and encouraging them. He brought out the best in those who worked with him. He encouraged them to be free, to initiate, to contribute,” he said.

Father O’Brien was rector of the Cathedral during its renovation. He remembered the prayerful discernment Bishop Harrison gave the process. “When we were renovating the Cathedral, a very touching part of it was that he came over when they were installing the altar,” Father O’Brien said. “He sat there for two or three hours in a very prayerful way watching them do that. He brought a spiritual, profound sense to that moment. I’m sure he was praying when they were putting it together. For him it was a symbol of so much that was so important to the community who would come together to worship there.” The word “free” comes up often in describing Bishop Harrison. Father John Rose is now pastor of St. Mary of Mt. Carmel Church in Utica, the first parish young Father Frank Harrison served. “He was a visionary. What I mean by that is that he was ahead of his time, a man of freedom,” Father Rose said. “He gave great freedom to those he put into authority positions. It was a time of great growth and we flourished under his leadership style. The priests, religious and laity all liked him as a person and wanted to follow his lead.” Bishop Harrison wasn’t threatened by anything, Father Rose said. He knew who he was and was a man of deep prayer and spirituality. The importance of prayer was something he strived to bring to the people of the diocese. He and Bishop Thomas Costello joined 250 members of the then National Conference of Catholic Bishops at the Bishops’ Assembly for Prayer and Reflection on Episcopal Ministry held in the early 1980s. The event was held at St. John’s University and Abbey, then the largest Benedictine monastery in the world. He said then that spiritual renewal must take place “all the way down the line from the bishop through the priests to the people.”

Even at the time of Bishop Harrison’s 90th birthday he stated that he spent 20 minutes each day in centering prayer, a contemplative prayer form that he heard Father Basil Pennington explain during a retreat in Rockville Center in 1980. He brought back the contemplative technique to the priests of the diocese. Bishop Harrison began the EMMAUS program for the spiritual renewal of diocesan priests in 1982 and then followed it up with the Renew process for all people of the diocese. Many of the programs he instituted remain alive and well in the diocese in some form today. The Formation For Ministry Program, well-developed Parish [Pastoral] Councils, the refugee program, commissions on Peace and Justice, Rural Life, the elderly and youth are still serving the people the Syracuse Diocese. The first diocesan-wide Rite of Election took place under his tenure and dialogue about women’s role in church and society was addressed as well. Hearings were held in the four regions of the diocese so that Bishop Harrison and Bishop Costello could participate in discussion about the concerns that were relevant to women. Questions raised at the time included asking women if they felt appreciated as women in the church, or discriminated against and what might be required to help affirm the role of women in society and church.

Sister Laura Bufano, CSJ, noted that Bishop Harrison died on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker and how much he loved the Sisters of St. Joseph. Bishop Harrison appointed her to the Office of Church Vocations as co-director. “He was supportive and affirming, always ready to listen. We always knew when he was in the chancery, we sometimes heard his laughter before we saw him,” Sister Laura said. After a visit to Chile in 1980 for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Harrison had a special affinity for the issues faced by Latin Americans. He wrote to the White House and the State Department asking for a halt to the shipment of U.S. military aid to El Salvador, and later to Nicaragua. He supported the rights of conscientious objectors and spoke out about ending military build up. Bishop Harrison not only fought for the rights of the unborn but also the rights and dignity of the handicapped, the elderly and the poor. He lent support to social justice projects around the diocese including projects for the homeless, abused women, alcoholism programs and programs for the incarcerated. Bishop Harrison issued a pastoral statement in 1983, “The Church as Employer,” committing the diocese to justice for its own employees. He also committed the diocese to develop a pension system for retired women religious. New guidelines for preparation for baptism, confirmation and marriage were instituted during his tenure.

Always conscious of the role of laity after Vatican II, Bishop Harrison was the first bishop in New York State to commission lay ministers for the diocese. Diocesan ministries opened up to lay people and men and women religious. He saw that the future would bring a decline in priests to serve the people and began addressing that issue. Priests now apply for parishes they want to serve rather than being appointed without being consulted because of his time as bishop. The ministries of lay people and the role of permanent deacon progressed under his attention. He asked parishes to look at the trends in relation to parishes remaining open, aligning with others and sharing resources. Meetings brought people together to begin discussion about the future of the diocese and the future of the church. His administration was unique in that he delegated responsibility to the people that make up the church.

Bishop Harrison had a particular love of Vatican II having served half of his priestly life before the Council and the other half afterward. He preferred the second half, he said just a couple of years ago. “I like the new church,” Bishop Harrison said in The Catholic SUN in a story on the occasion of his 90th birthday. “I did not like the rigidity of the old church. Everything was bing, bing bing — very rigid. The old church was too centralized. We tried to spread that out. We brought women into the picture. We had committees that met every month or so that were made up of the heads of departments so that we could have discussion and let everyone know what the other was doing. It’s better to come together and discuss issues.” Above and beyond anything that could be said of Bishop Harrison, he was the “peoples’ bishop” in many ways. He lived in the faculty house at Bishop Grimes while he was bishop and spent his years as auxiliary bishop staying connected to the parishes he served as pastor. There were no airs or pretenses with Bishop Harrison. He spoke to The Catholic SUN upon his appointment as bishop and said, “Well, I simply could not live alone. There are times when I need to be alone, for prayer or simply quiet reflection and relaxation, but normally I like to have people around me. Eating alone is not as enjoyable as sharing a meal with others.”

Father George Sheehan, principal of Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School was a close friend of Bishop Harrison. “He was a gentle man and a modest man and had a great sense of history,” said Father Sheehan. “There was a sense of community when we lived together at Grimes. He used to try to teach the kids the importance of prayer and the Eucharist. When he lived here he used to go out back and watch all the games going on at the school.” Bishop Harrison retired in June 1987, soon after he celebrated his 50th anniversary of ordination. Approximately 1,000 people, 287 priests, 31 bishops, deacons and clergy of other denominations as well as Cardinal John O’Connor, archbishop of New York, gathered at his Jubilee Mass and to bid him pleasant retirement at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Invited guests included members of the bishop’s family and staff, his personal friends, civic leaders and former classmates. In his remarks, Cardinal O’Connor praised Bishop Harrison for his gentleness and told him, “Thank you for everything you have done –– and far more importantly, for everything you are.” After his retirement, Bishop Harrison continued to enjoy playing golf and spending time in Florida. He also stayed in close contact with his friends. That was evident by how many colleagues and friends had visited him right up to the end. In addition to his commitment to the priesthood and his prayerful life, Bishop Harrison was a man who will be remembered for his awesome ability to remember people’s names.

Dan Brown, a partner at Dermody Burke and Brown, was a friend and golf partner of Bishop Harrison’s for over 25 years. “I think I was one of the last lay people who visited with him before he died,” said Brown. “His memory was unbelievable. He not only knew everyone’s name, but who they were related to and where they lived,” he said. Brown said when he visited Bishop Harrison each Saturday, he would receive a blessing from him. “That last Saturday, I gave him my blessing. He held my hand,” said Brown. Msgr. Bill also visited with Bishop Harrison on the day he died. “He offered me all of his golf balls, said Msgr. Bill. “I refused him. I told him that they hadn’t worked too good for him, so they wouldn’t work well for me,” he said. “He was a great golfer. He usually beat me.” Father Kopp shared his memories of the bishop’s uncanny knack for remembering people’s names. “He would start a litany of someone who we were talking about,” said Father Kopp. We would start laughing at him because he would go back and back and back. Then he would laugh at himself.” “When he talked about people, I would say ‘Is that pre-canal or post-canal?’” joked Father Sheehan. “He knew everyone’s genealogy. Two days before he died, a person walked in to visit him who had children at Bishop Ludden,” Father Sheehan said. “Immediately, Bishop Harrison talked about the family and the people. I had no idea who they were and I was principal at Bishop Ludden at the time.” Kate Anderson, now Bishop Moynihan’s administrative assistant, also worked as Bishop Harrison’s secretary. She said he always made others feel comfortable and welcome. After Bishop Harrison retired, she maintained a warm relationship with him. Over the course of the last year and a half they developed a very close friendship. Anderson visited the bishop nearly every day and said they reminisced and shared memories.

“I am grateful for that opportunity,” Anderson said. She spoke about his love of Notre Dame. “You didn’t talk during Notre Dame games if you were with him. You had to wait until half-time or the game was over.” The diocese has truly had its own “Fighting Irishman” in Bishop Frank Harrison. “He was a man of deep and practical faith,” added Father Kopp. “He loved people and loved life.” Bishop Frank Harrison brought a “new attitude” to the diocese. He gave of himself and he helped others do the same. He was a man of the people and he will be missed.

In Memory

Contributions in memory of Bishop Frank Harrison may be made to the Bishop Grimes Scholarship Fund, 6653 Kirkville Road, East Syracuse, NY 13057.

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