By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published July 6, 2017
LAWRENCEVILLE—Father James L. Harrison, the founding principal of St. Pius X High School and one of the first native-born Georgia diocesan priests, retired July 1. He has been serving as pastor of St. Marguerite d’Youville Church in Lawrenceville.
Organized by the Martha’s Ministry of the parish, a buffet dinner party was held in honor of Father Harrison in Floyd Farabaugh Hall following the May 20 vigil Mass.
In addition to the parish hall, an adjacent patio area was decorated for the occasion. An intense downpour of rain kept the celebration indoors but did not dampen the spirits of the parish community.
Parishioners enjoyed live music, a meal and desserts, but most importantly the fellowship with their beloved pastor.
Carol Fitzpatrick, parishioner, has known the priest for more than a decade.
“He’s very generous with his time. He loves the children and knows everybody’s name,” said Fitzpatrick.
Father Harrison, 88, was assigned to St. Marguerite d’Youville in June 2005.
“We really have enjoyed his presence here,” said Tom Wetzel, a member of the parish finance council.
Wetzel said the priest is known for greeting people. He recalled a time where a youngster escaped from his family at a Mass. Father Harrison turned what could have been an embarrassing moment for the parents into a positive, saying, “Welcome.”
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” said Wetzel.
When Father Harrison arrived for the celebration, guests gave him a standing ovation.
A member of the Martha’s Ministry pinned a white rose boutonnière on his lapel.
Atlanta not yet a diocese
In a 2006 interview with The Georgia Bulletin, Father Harrison credited the presence of Marist priests in his life for deciding to become a priest. His first memory is not only of time spent in the classroom at Marist School but of the priests’ excursion to watch an Atlanta Crackers baseball game.
Father Harrison was born in Atlanta on April 21, 1929. The priest, whose mother was Baptist and father Catholic, attended public schools until going to Marist School in the ninth grade.
He attended St. Charles College in Catonsville, Maryland, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy.
Father Harrison was ordained to the priesthood in Rome, Italy, on Dec. 17, 1955, just before the creation of the Diocese of Atlanta in 1956. Prior to that, the Diocese of Savannah was the only Georgia diocese. His first assignment as priest was to serve at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta.
In 1958, Father Harrison became the first principal of St. Pius X High School, remaining there until 1964.
It was at the high school where Deacon George Angelich of St. Marguerite d’Youville first met Father Harrison. Angelich was 15 and had a definite vision for his educational future.
“St. Pius X was a new school, and I wanted to go to St. Pius,” recalled Deacon Angelich.
He was to go to school at Northside High School, a public school in Atlanta, and without the priest’s intervention being enrolled at St. Pius X might not have happened.
He found transportation to the school, walked through the breezeway and thought, “That’s where this is going to end.”
The teen met Father Harrison, talked for a bit, expressed his desire for a Catholic education, and again thought that would be the end of his dream.
“He made a phone call,” remembers Deacon Angelich.
Afterward, the principal wrote on a piece of paper and handed it to the boy, saying, “This is your homeroom number.”
“He was very organized, and he added a lot of structure to the school. He was fairly strict,” remembered the deacon.
He most of all recalls Father Harrison’s “care and kindness.”
Started St. Catherine of Siena School
Following his tenure at St. Pius X High School, Father Harrison was assigned as pastor of St. Michael Church in Gainesville.
He also served at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta; St. Joseph Church, Athens; St. Anna Church, Monroe; Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta; Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Atlanta; and St. Catherine of Siena Church, Kennesaw, from 1997-2005.
Under his leadership at St. Catherine of Siena Church, the parish opened an elementary school utilizing existing parish buildings. The school constructed a new building in 2004, and since that time the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia have helped to staff and lead the school.
Father Harrison also has 24 years of experience with public schools in Marietta. He served as assistant principal at Sprayberry High School for 18 years and as an administrative assistant at Oakwood Open Campus High School.
Like a number of religious and clergy following what Father Harrison once termed “the upheaval” of Vatican II, he left the active ministry.
He later approached the archdiocese about returning to the active priesthood and was accepted.
Father Harrison said serving at the Lawrenceville parish has been special.
“It’s been a wonderful experience. It’s a very diverse parish. The priests are great,” he said about fellow clergy.
He also complimented St. Marguerite’s deacons and the active Polish community. The parish is home to the archdiocese’s Polish Apostolate.
Father Harrison may eventually assist some parishes on the south side of Atlanta as needed, but will stay on for a short time at St. Marguerite as new pastor Father Tomy Joseph, MSFS, arrives.
“I’ll be happy to help,” he said of the transition. Father Harrison will continue his Sunday afternoon practicing of visiting the sick and taking Communion to them.
He will later move to the East Lake area of Atlanta. His younger brother, Charles, just turned 86 and lives in Atlanta.
“My immediate plans are just to get settled in,” said Father Harrison.
Knowing all the priests
Through the years, the size and number of Catholics in the archdiocese is what has changed the most, he said.
“I can remember when we only had 35 priests. I used to know them all,” said Father Harrison. “The Chancery, at one time, was in the basement of the cathedral.”
Following his golden jubilee in 2005, Father Harrison shared memories of attending Mass with his father in Decatur as a young boy
“In those days the church was the center of social and religious life,” he said.
He said then that people were beginning to view church differently and to question its teachings.
“There’s an increase in divorce, young people don’t pay attention and people don’t go to church. But the church is needed to help people grow more, particularly when they’re under duress,” he said.
The former educator has an evident bond with the children of the parish; many children bounded up during the dinner party to offer a hug and circled around him as he cut the retirement cake.
Jane Walker, director of religious education for St. Marguerite d’Youville, presented the pastor a gift bag stuffed with cards, handmade by the children of the community.
“He’s a delight to work for. He is very special,” said Walker.
Molly Rowland, who recently graduated from high school, was one of two parish photographers capturing memories of the party.
“He greets everyone by name on Sundays and makes a point to hug every child and tell them how loved they are,” said Rowland.
The retirement party also doubled as a celebration of the burning of a mortgage and the dedication of the parish hall as Floyd Farabaugh Hall. The late Floyd Farabaugh was a member of the Knights of Columbus and helped guide the community through a major renovation after flooding.
Rosalie Blair heads the Martha’s Ministry and expressed gratitude for Father Harrison’s backing of their group and the entire community.
“He is such a support. Everybody in this parish just adores him. He’s a gem,” she said.