“I don’t deny,” he said, “that there should be priests to remind men that they will one day die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.” —G.K. Chesterton, Manalive
Like the enigmatic Mr. Innocent Smith in Chesterton’s novel, Monsignor Craig Harrison has spent a good deal of his life reminding people that they are not dead yet. No, they are quite alive and he intends to stand alongside and pester them until the case is made.
His star now lies embedded in the pavement before the Fox Theater entrance, in a line with the late Buck Owens and retiring Mayor Harvey L. Hall. Reads the summary under his name, “God’s Good Shepherd. Give your hands to serve and your hearts to love.”
The five points of the star aim toward all the sections of the city where Fr. Harrison has served and left his mark. Shoot out an invisible line from each point and it will not go far before intersecting a life he has touched. His circuitous journey has brought him from rebellion, to discovery, service, and dedication. Who would have dreamed that the boy once tossed out of St. Francis of Assisi School would become its Pastor?
Childhood and the Slapping Nun
He is Bakersfield born and bred, into “a family with a typical middle class routine.”
“An average day for me in say, 1970, would be riding my bike to Emerson Middle School, coming home, doing homework, taking music lessons—I played trombone—and playing Jack Frost Football,” recalls Harrison. “And on Sundays, we would go to church, come home, and my dad would make this big breakfast for us all.”
“We weren’t much of a TV family,” he says, “but my parents always made sure there were plenty of books around, so reading was a big thing for us.” By “us” he denotes his older brother Rick, and twin sisters Nancy and Susan. Another brother, Jeffrey, died in infancy.
Harrison also rode his bike to another school, St. Francis of Assisi Parish School, until he committed the act leading to his dismissal: he punched a nun.
“It was Sister Henrietta,” he explains, with an odd blend of sheepishness and defiance. “We had to wear these shirts and the collars had to be buttoned. I left mine unbuttoned because, well, I just couldn’t button it. My neck was too fat. So, Sister Henrietta confronted me and ordered, ‘Button it!’ I just couldn’t. So she slapped me. And, by instinct, I punched her in the stomach. But the thing is, she had like 5,000 layers of clothing on, so she didn’t feel it.”
Feel it or not, he was cast into the outer darkness. His parents, he said, were “appalled.”
“You, you know, you just don’t hit a nun,” he admits. He has been asked about the incident myriad times over the years, including a question he is sometimes asked: what will you say to Sister Henrietta in heaven? One thing he might say, by way of introduction is, “Hello, Sister Henrietta. Don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Monsignor Craig Harrison, Pastor of St. Francis of Assisi School.”
“When I think back on my childhood, and all our family went through,” he offers, “I’m just amazed at how my parents kept it all together. There was the death of my brother, Jeffrey, who had not even reached his first birthday. Then, my older brother Rick contracted a disease which essentially left him paralyzed, and he required constant care. But we still maintained our family life. We didn’t think of ourselves as marred by the events. My parents just kept it all together. That fills me with such gratitude and respect for them.”
“As a child, I was an altar server and I loved that,” he recalls, “but as I got into high school I found church boring. I started looking elsewhere.”
The Monsignor’s sister, Newport Beach realtor and Bakersfield businesswoman Nancy Harrison-Frey, died suddenly in 2009. His dad, Donald Harrison, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in early 2013. His wife of 58 years, Dorothy became the primary caregiver. She herself, shortly after shouldering that responsibility, faced her own diagnosis: late-stage pancreatic and lung cancer. Donald died July 29, 2013. Dorothy died on Easter weekend in April 2014.
After high school (Bakersfield High School, where his father was a coach and administrator), he attended UCLA, majoring in Business and Economics. During those years, his spiritual hunger increased and he affiliated for a time with the Calvary Chapel Movement, a flirtation which brought evangelistic fervor but did not fully satisfy him. Ultimately, after more soul-searching and reflection, he returned to the Catholic Church.
“God has led me on an amazing journey searching for truth and for self,” he reflects. “I found it in my Catholic faith. I listened to the voice inside. It was a difficult journey for many of those years, but, I love what I do and count my blessings. The fact that I was a Driller helps…everyone knows Jesus was a Driller.”
What many know him for locally is the fact that, although single and a priest, Harrison is father to eight adopted boys, all of whom were involved (along with the Fox Theater Foundation) in establishing a place for his star on the local walk of fame.
The adoptions started in 1980 when Harrison taught part-time at Chipman Junior High School, in Bakersfield.
“Roy was my first son,” he recounts. “Roy had gone from foster home to foster home. I started out as his big brother and, when I turned 21, I filed for adoption. He was 11.”
“God brought us together,” recalls Roy Keenan, now 48, owner of Keenan Silver Jewelry on 18th Street, and the father of two sons himself. “He [Harrison] said to the school, ‘Show me the boy who needs the most mentoring,’ and became my big brother. He taught all of us how to have a good work ethic, to work hard, be honorable, even how to balance a checkbook.”
“The impact he has had on this community is astonishing,” Keenan said. “I don’t have to tell you how, in some quarters, priests aren’t even respected anymore. You’ve heard the jokes. We all have. But when Craig shows up on the scene, he’s the real deal. It’s not just entertainment with them. When he helps someone, he doesn’t just speak words. He jumps in it with you. He stands right with you.”
To illustrate the wideness of Harrison’s influence, Keenan recalled an incident from the 1980s when he accompanied him to Paris. The two stood at the top of the Eiffel Tower and a voice called out, “Fr. Craig, is that you?” It was someone on the other side of the world who had been helped by Fr. Harrison. In an instant, Keenan realized that his adoptive father was a lowly village priest, but in a very, very large village.
After adopting Roy, Harrison set about working toward his long-term goals. He listened to that inner voice and heard it calling him to the ministry. He entered St. John’s Seminary, in Camarillo, CA, where he obtained a Master’s of Divinity. He became a priest in 1987, serving first at St. Francis Church in Mojave, and later at St. Joseph’s in Firebaugh. In July 1999 he became priest at St. Francis of Assisi. He was given the title Monsignor, by Pope Benedict, on May 11, 2008.
The adoptions continued. One after the other, Roy Keenan inherited brothers.
Said Harrison, “After Roy, the next was Rudy. He was a student of mine also, and he just fit into my life and I in his. Greg and Mark were next. They just needed help. Billy came to me through Fr. Tom Timmings, a Delano friend of mine who thought he needed a home. Herky was an orphan and I had room. I must admit, when I think back on it, this was not some great humanitarian effort. I think I was just needy and they filled the gap. Jose and Juan were young men from my parish in Firebaugh. They completed the family. I also claim Arturo who has helped raise my grandchildren. I have 19 and I need all the help I can get. So the eight of these young men and their wives now make up my family. I am the luckiest man in the world.
“I have no idea how God allowed me to do all this but it was the best thing that has ever happened to me. And it makes for some great sermons.”
The star on the walk was Keenan’s idea for a birthday present. He called his seven adopted brothers up and they all agreed. They used the pretext of a luncheon at the Padre Hotel to induce Harrison over to the H Street area. It almost failed when, on the morning the presentation was to be made, Harrison was in Fresno serving a Mass, and called to say he would be a no-show. Son Roy then “spilled the beans” on the true purpose of the lunch.
“He was gonna flake on us,” Keenan said, “but he left Mass early to get down here. All the brothers and their families showed up, along with a bunch of other people. After all, he’s not just our dad. He belongs to the whole community.”
We reached the Monsignor by telephone. He is on his way, just arriving at the Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center (CBCC) on Truxtun. It is where both of his parents were treated, and where so many friends, parishioners, and members of the community have met with him. It is a regular ministry stop for him. He answers questions, with interruptions every half-minute from people who recognize him as he walks toward the entrance, then down the hallway. They want his attention, want to connect.
If he was set atop a tall building in downtown Bakersfield, say, something the size of the Eiffel Tower, and the citizens of Kern County were gathered beneath, and he had three minutes to deliver a message, what would he say?
There is not a second of hesitation: “I would tell them, ‘Count your blessings.’ Look around you. See what a wonderful city this is, with wonderful people, and glorious opportunities. Look at your family, your friends. Be positive, be grateful, be thankful. Everybody needs to have more gratitude. I need that! If there is one thing our lives should be about, it is gratitude.
“Just the other day,” he continues, “I met a man walking down this walkway—he is interrupted now by a “Hello.” “How are you?” he asks. “God bless!”—and I greeted him. He had just finished another round of chemotherapy. He wore bandages from his head to his lower arms. And yet, instead of talking about himself, he said to me, ‘I saw your star by the Fox Theater. That is something.’ I know that man. Despite all he has been through, and is going through now, he thinks of others. He has gratitude. Somehow, that is the secret. Gratitude.”
Despite all he has been through himself, and is going through now, Harrison is a man of gratitude. Jubilant, irrepressible, and always the warrior-poet. And always, as son Roy Keenan reminded, someone unafraid to “stand right with you,” because the chances are, where you have been, in darkness or light, he has been there also.
“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs,” wrote Catholic novelist and essayist Flannery O’Connor in The Habit of Being. “They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”
Family photos courtesy of Susan Reed
Event photos by Reema Hammad