Writer Lisa Allen-Agostini reviews Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Harris’ book, God’s Will which is in bookstores and will be on sale at the AEC Mission Congress National Rally at the Queen’s Park Savannah next Sunday, September 22.
With a severe stutter and essential tremors, Trinidadian Joseph ‘Fr Joe’ Harris acknowledges he might have seemed an unlikely person to end up a priest, far less the Archbishop of Port of Spain.
Valentino Singh’s recent authorised biography of the archbishop emeritus, God’s Will, details Harris’ youth and childhood and his career in the Church, climaxing in his 2011 appointment as only the second person of colour and local named to the post in T&T.
Singh, a retired sports journalist and author of three other books, based God’s Will on interviews with Harris and others. It was published in December by Singh’s imprint Urchin Sport.
Says Fr Joe as he is affectionately called: “Religion was part of my life from the day I was born. My mother attended mass every day while my father was a weekly communicant.”
As part of their devotions, the Harris children gathered around their parents’ bed nightly for the family rosary. It was something that connected them to their Creator, and there was never a thought of any of the children missing it.
Given the family’s spiritual adherence, Mrs Harris’ prayers and her appeal for a connection to God through her children, were understandable.
“It was never a secret. We all knew what mommy prayed for and we knew what it meant to her. She prayed incessantly. She got exactly what she prayed for, so there can be no doubt that the power of prayer is real.”
Although God answered her prayers and directed both a son and a daughter into religious life, Mrs Harris could hardly have anticipated that it would be the youngest of her sons who would enter the priesthood.
In fact, the front-runner for the clergy was the oldest of the Harris’ children, their first son, Conrad Jnr.
“The stammering and nervousness made out a compelling case for me to not even think about joining the priesthood. I simply did what I had to do in Conrad’s footsteps. Even then, it was quite difficult since I was stammering alarmingly.”
At both primary schools he attended, Fr Joe anticipated some taunting and heckling from his schoolmates because of his handicaps but he was lucky since his father was headmaster at both institutions.
“I suppose the other boys would have been foolish to make fun of me. Boys will be boys but when your father is headmaster of the school, others would think twice before interfering with you.”
But there was no sanctuary once he entered secondary school at St Mary’s College. Other students found much delight in referring to him as ‘Stammering Joe’ and ‘Shakespeare’.
When he was eight years old, Joseph had an experience that may have subconsciously planted a seed in his mind to enter the clergy.
His parents took him to pay respects to the family of a young woman from their village who died suddenly.
When they got to the house, the dead woman’s husband was standing over her coffin and despite the group of persons who were trying to comfort him, he was inconsolable.
The atmosphere lingered in Fr Joe’s head for a long time and he left the venue with a deep sense of sadness.
“I was struck by the pain which the husband displayed so openly. That sadness tugged at my heart. Even though I was a child and could not have understood death as I do now, I left there thinking to myself if that was how a husband felt when his wife died, I never wanted to become anyone’s husband.”
What did not cross his youthful mind was that among the people who never got married were priests.
As he headed to his 17th birthday, his social life was gradually taking shape and ‘Stammering Joe’ and ‘Shakespeare’ made way for Joe. Like most teenagers, he now had a few friends and was having quite a bit of fun.
“I was going to parties, on river limes and doing what was the norm for young men at that time, raiding people’s fruit trees and yes I had an interest in girls. But I was as innocent as they come.”
He jokingly recalls his first significant encounter with someone of the opposite sex, a very attractive young lady named Barbara who was a regular visitor to church on Sundays.
One day while he was at home alone, there was a knock on the door and when he opened it, Barbara was standing in front of him.
“When Barbara knocked on the door, I was surprised since I wasn’t expecting anyone. She entered the house, and before I knew what was happening she looked me in the eye and asked: ‘Joe, you ever kissed a girl?’
“To tell the truth, I couldn’t answer, I just turned Barbara around and guided her back out the door.”
Still by the time the call came, there was someone special in his life.
“There was this young lady with whom I had a friendship, so much so that we made plans to go to the same university together in Canada.”
Those plans never materialised since there was another knocking, this time at his soul.
“When God knocks, you’d better answer. He knows exactly what he is doing. I had this overwhelming desire for something much more than a relationship with another person. God was calling.”