Fr. Edmund Alfred Joseph Harrison S.J.

The Founder of the Congregation of the Handmaids of Mary.

  

Fr. Alfred Joseph Harrison S.J. was born in Roubaix in France, on 5th November 1905. His father Alfred Harrison belongs to an aristocratic English family. He was an Anglican by faith. He was a consult of the USA in Roubaix. He married Aline Van Dan Driessches, daughter of a physician of Les-Les-Lanncy, close to Roubaix. She was person of arcent faith and a devout French Catholic. His marriage with her antagonise his Anglican family and they cut off all relationships with him and disinherited him.

The young couple lived in Roubaix. They had three children Julie, Edmund and Marguerite. Julie died early in life. Edmund was baptised on 7th November 1905 in the reputable church of St. Martin of Roubaix which was frequented by the upper class families of the town. At Baptism he received the name Edmund Albert Joseph. On the 15th July 1919 he was confirmed in the same church by Msgr.Charost the Bishop of Lille, which belonged to the Diocese of Cambrai.

Edmund’s parents moved to Herseaux, in Belgium and settled there, due to Mr.Harrison’s ill health. While going to his office daily he took his children along to Roubaix to attend the school there. Everyone in the village acknowledge that the two children were very well brought up.

Mr. Harrison was taken a political prisoner by the Germans in 1914 during the World War I. The children continued their studies in Roubaix. Later his sister was sent to Amiens to study in the school run by the sisters of the Sacred Heart. Mr. Harrison died after his repatriation to England on 4th November 1919, seven days before the end of the war, without ever having seen again his wife and children or any member of his English family. Edmund was only 14 years old then.

 

The high school in which Edmund attended in Roubaix, from 1919 to 1924 was called Our Lady of Victories run by the Diocesan priests. It is now called the institute of John XXIII. Edmund was not a bright student, but was good at solfeggio, playing the piano and in gymnastics and received prizes in all these. At the end of his studies, he held the 20th rank among 50 students with 50% marks.

After his high school studies, he was in two minds about his future, the responsibility of looking after his mother and sister and his own plans for his future. His own testimony is the best: “I felt no attraction to religious life at the end of my rhetoric, on the contrary I disliked it. Whilst I was studying Philosophy, I was trying to find out what I would do in the world and as I was talking about the subject with my mother on 29th September 1923, she did not approve of any such projects and she upset me by saying that I was on the wrong track and that God certainly had bigger plans for me”.

She encouraged him to follow God’s call and not to worry about her and his sister. God blessed him generously and dispelled his anxiety for the support of his mother when she received an enormous amount as gratuity from the American Government. His attraction for family life was still disturbing him. But the annual high school retreat helped him to discern his vocation. “During the Benediction which followed a sermon on mortal sin, I was seized with a violent emotion when I heard the hymn “Sub Tuum” being sung. On the one hand, I felt drawn to the priesthood in order to preserve my innocence, and on the other, I was replied by the idea. Soon after I felt consoled and offered myself completely to God, then I felt particularly reluctant to carry on with my studies”.

On the 2nd October, the retreat confessor confirmed that I was called to the priesthood, at which I was again seized with great agitation of mind and with doubts. After this retreat the struggles between the choices of priestly life and family life grew acute. On the 11th November after supper my mother, a priest friend and myself began to talk about my vocation. They were afraid that I would go astray in the world. I, however remained firm and refused to take any decision until the retreat at the end of the school year in the month of May 1924.

On the 31st December 1923listening to a sermon the mission . I felt a great desire of giving myself over to them and decided to become a missionary. But as I knew that my father was an English convert I wanted to join the English mission. I felt much comforted, I was happy, I gave thanks to God. From that time on I sought a Congregation that did mission work in British colonies, also wanted one, where there were no long studies and above all one with a strong sense of discipline.

On 1st February 1924 I contacted the O.M.I.(Oblate of Mary) Fathers. On Easter day I told my mother about my vacation and she gave her consent. I went during the holidays to Paris in order to meet the Provincial of O.M.I.. But I did not take a decision before the retreat. I made with the Jesuit Fathers on May 7th.

A certain Father proposed that I join the society but I did not wish this. On the 8th as I was waiting for the confessor in his room, I saw on the table a missionary monthly called China, Ceylon, Madagascar which greatly excited my admiration, little by little, as I came to know the Fathers better my prejudices against the society fell, but there were still some difficulties, namely the long studies and doubts, about which mission to join. The following days the society appeared to me as a most beautiful example of a Missionary Religious Order and I fell in love with it. By the end of retreat I had decided to make every sacrifice to join the society if it were God’s will. I prayed and waited.

These were the reasons which motivated my love for the society :

  1. The great emphasis on the formation of the mind and soul and on exterior discipline which are of importance for the missionary.
  2. To make a greater offering of myself to God, for I shall have to make greater efforts to reach perfection and to study.
  3. The society was a Religious Order which had received so many approbations, blessings and privileges for the Popes. On the 13th June, on the advice of my mother, I went to see the Novice Master of the Province of Champagne (France). I drew from this visit a greater knowledge of and esteem for the society. After that I decided a new to join it. But I did not know yet for sure in which Province there were English Missions. I thought of the English Province and wrote to the Novice Master of Rohampton (England). In July as I was returning from England with my mother, I went to meet a certain Father in the Brussel’s residence (of the Jesuists). But he was absent till the end of the month. However, as I was paying visit to the Blessed Sacrament most extraordinarily that very Father had returned to the residence to pick up his mail. He told me that the Belgian Province had a great English Mission, and he urged me to talk with Rev. Fr. Provincial and I was made sure that I would be sent to the missions. By the end of August I chose to join the Province and I asked Fr. Provincial to admit me in the society. I was received by Fr. Willaert and joined the Novitiate in Arlon on the 23rd September 1924.

His Novice Master was the saintly and prudent Fr. Hugine Borreman. One of his co-novices at that time Fr. Francis Lauwers, has given us this pen sketch of Brother Edmund Harrison , the novice : “A young man with blue eyes and crew cut blond hair, his approach was extremely open and smiling. He was an enthusiastic novice, but his enthusiasm was calm and not flurried. He had a real motivated piety, I would say, without affectation”.

On the 26th September that same year he started the traditional one month long retreat. After two years of novitiate he made his vows on the 24th September 1926. On the 27th he was sent to Drongen in North Belgium for his Juniocate. There he studied in greater depth Latin, Greek, French, History and Literature.

After Edmund had joined the Novitiate, Mrs. Harrison left Herseaux with her daughter for Rome where Marguerite became a governess in a family of high nobility.

On the 16th December 1927 he sailed for India from Marceilles (South France) with three other Jesuits companions to study Philosophy in Shembaganur in Madhurai Mission. Three years later in in December 1930 he began his regency in St. John’s High School in Ranchi teaching in the 9th class. In 1933 he was sent to Kurseong as boarding master and teacher in the local school of the parish. In 1934 he began his Theological studies in St. Mary’s Kurseong and was ordained priest on November 21st ,1936 by the Archbishop of Calcutta Msg. Perier S.J.. His mother and sister came to India to attend his ordination.

They were so taken up with India that they decided to stay in India after having sold out all their belongings in Europe. She died in 1939 in an apartment of the palace. His sister then went to Sophia college in Bombay where she taught and there she died of cancer on February 10th ,1961 assisted by her brother Edmund. With her death Edmund had not a single family member alive.

In 1938 under Fr. Veys S.J. he made his tertianship in Ranchi and the same year on the 15th August he took his last vows. After his tertianship he was appointed minister in St. Stanislaus College (Novitiate) in Sitagarh, Hazaribagh in 1939. He became Socius of the novice master in 1940 there. He also taught Zoology.

In 1942 he was appointed curate of Fr. Verelat S.J. in Kesramal and ordinary confessor of the Daughters of the Cross. In 1944 he became the Paris Priest there. It was in Kesramal that the idea of recruiting local vocations for the mission originated in his mind which later blossomed into founding of the Congregation of the Handmaids of Mary. “What we need here is the body of the real missionary sisters thoroughly trained to work efficiently in and for Gangpur. By missionary sisters I mean a Congregation whose primary purpose is the teaching of religion and catechism toboth children in schools and people in the villages in a concrete, practical, adapted and appealing way, so that all may learn to love and practice well their religion. If we want to do away with ‘mati puja’ (spirit worship) we must foster the love and full and practical knowledge of our religion. To achieve this great aim our young sisters must become real experts in this line, both as regards the subject to be taught and the way to present it to the people. Their hearts must be in that work from the very beginning of their training and all their other activities must be subordinate to it. Hence it follows that they should be trained to use the language of the people in the explanation of our religion, they must be so well drilled in the use of it for that purpose that all listeners old and young, will fully well understand the message they have to give them. I conceive their training in two stages :

  1. We take all the girls who show serious signs of vocation and who are likely to work well for the mission and we give them a good training according to our methods.
  2. The brighter subjects will be pushed through the Government Guru training which is in the state, a higher qualification expected from a girl. With this they will be quite fit to become first class Masterins (teachers) in our Primary schools in the dehat (village). The sisters will do the work of Dharam Pracharin (catechist), nurse and all that is required in a community of sisters.

 I would beg to you to have new blood in our mission of Gangpur, new spirit, new zeal and an entirely new Congregation. (Fr. Harrison’s letter to Bishop Oscar Severin S.J. dated 24th August 1943 from Kesramal).

With the support of Bishop Oscar Severin S.J. he founded the Congregation in 1944 with 5 tribal girls of Gangpur. These girls were sent to Ranchi to be trained by the Daughters of St. Ann following their Constitutions and wearing their habit until they made their first profession on 8th December 1946. On the previous day of their profession he proposed two names “The Handmaids of Mary” and “The Daughters of St. Francis” fro their choice as the name of their Congregation. They chose the first.

He was transferred to Mahuadanr soon after their profession. He said good bye to his first batch of sisters on 30th December 1946. When he left, Bishop Oscar Severin entrusted the care of the sisters to Fr. Werwast S.J. and the Daughters of the Cross.

When Fr. Turkensburg S.J. died in Mahuadarn in 1946, Fr. Harrison was called upon to take up his succession in Chechari, and thus began his Palamu period. Fr. Turkensburg was an inspiring and daring missionary among the exploited tribals of Mahuadarn. He had united them against their exploiters. His enemy took revenge on him by poisoning him to death. To take up this difficult mission an immediate replacement was necessary and his superiors chose Fr. Harrison for it. However his mission there was not very successful.

The Daltonganj mission owes its origin to Fr. Harrison who bought a house and started a mission in this town, the head quarters of the district of Palamu. During this period he came to Kalunga to preach retreat to the Postulants of the Handmaids of Mary (December 28th 1952 to January 6th 1953) who entered the Novitiate on 6th January. One of the retreatants recalled now how Fr. Harrison spoke to Mary Magdeline going to Jesus although others whi saw him spoke unkindly to her. He advised them to go to Jesus straight without minding what others say.

1954 to 1962 was his Noatoli period. As an energetic Parish Priest, Superior and Dean he built the new parish residence, organised a number of catchuminates, brought new life into the parish groups and started to put up a great big parish hall that would also serve as a Church. Here the first symptoms of his disease appeared when he noticed that his feet growing insensitive.

He went to the Holy Family Hospital, Mandar, Ranchi, where it was diagonised that he was suffering from multiple sclerosis and he was advised to go to Europe for treatment. Fr. Harrison flew from Calcutta on 12th July 1962 and landesd in Brussels the next day. First he was treated in Belgium and Switzerland. He stayed in the Jesuite Study house at Heverlee. Later he was admitted to the Melsbrock clinic exclusively meant for the treatment of multiple sclerosis run by the Ursuline Sisters. In June he went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. His paralysis however spread all over his body. He wrote from Melsbrock to his Provincial: “ I returned from Lourdes with great courage and deeper insight into the meaning of suffering. My surrender to God is now complete and detached from self. I am truly happy because my condition to carry on my missionary vocation. I am grateful to the society to have given the occasion to make this pilgrimage and to Our Lady for the graces I then received”.

Although his condition did not appear much improved he remained very cheerful and prayed much for the Province. At his own request Fr. Harrison was appointed by His Lordship Msgr. Leo Tigga S.J. of Dumka Diocese in the sanctury of the Hospital Chapel during which he also renewed his vows and offered up his life.

His condition was growing worse, it was difficult for him even to speak. But he was edifying everyone with his wonderful courage. He had to be helped for meals. He managed to offered mass in a sitting position. He had to be helped for the elevation, purification of the chalice etc. He greatly edified his fellow patients, all affected with the same disease. In his wheel chair he often and gladly went around to see them and many of them came to him.

Fr. Jerome Sanders S.J. a few days before the New Year (1964), wrote very appropriately: “He suffers very much , he still lives heart and soul in his mission post and but hardly gives not the least sign of impatience or discouragement, always in high spirit and full of attention for others”.

Fr. Harrison said his last mass on Christmas day (25th December 1963). The following day the paralysis attacked the muscles of the lungs and he breathed with great difficulty. He was fed through one tube and received carbogene and oxygen through another. Again and again he had to be helped in a hurry lest he got choked. Now and then he could follow the prayers, it was difficult to understand him. He could hardly whisper and could no more move even a finger. Scholastics watched him at night. Fr. Rector J.M. Vanderlinden and Fr. Minister M.Cnops of Heverlee visited him every day. The whole hospital lived with him.

The last days were very painful, his feet, his hand and tongue did, not only grow gradually paralysed but he found it very difficult t breath and after a cold he had caught, he could not even cough. From that time on he was under artificial respiration and also fed artificially. The last night Fr. Harrison spent in a chair. He was heard to whisper , “Je prierai la haut” (I shall pray from above). He looked towards his crucifix. The day before he died his eyes broke and his face sagged obliterating his usual smile, paralysis reached his facial muscles. He died peacefully on the 6th January on the feast of Ephiphany 1964, when the Lord appeared in all his glory to the Nations. On January 9th he was buried in Heverlee, near Louvain.

His commemoration carol translated from French reads thus : “ I tell you most solemnly, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies it remains only a single grain, but if it dies it yields a rich harvest”. (Jn. 12/24)

His total surrender to God’s love together with a deep sense of faith and unshakable confidence in “the good providence” both in works and illness, have made deep impression on every one associated with him and has cheered up and helped many a soul.

During his missionary carrier he was a fervent priest and zealous missionary and on his sick bed he was always concerned with the eternal and temporal happiness of his fellow men. “Every one loved him because he always forgot himself to think of others”. (St. Gregory of Wazianze)

He became an example for his confrers by his gratitude for what he received from the society of Jesus and for the great work entrusted to him and by his simple, poor and detached religious and missionary life.

During his illness he was still planning for the increase of the great devotion to our Lady for his parishioners in India.

“Well done, good and faithful servant, come and join your master’s happiness”.(Mt. 25/21)

The unique characteristics of this charismatic founder of the Handmaids of Mary stand out in his life. He was a missionary with a vision. His missionary zeal to preach the GOOD NEWS to children in school and people in the village especially the women of Gangpur and to uplift them all, urges him to found the congregation of the Handmaids of Mary at Kesramal in 1944. When he was the Parish Priest there.

He was a most zealous Parish Priest, unflingingly faithful to pastoral duties. He was entrusted with responsibilities in the important missions at Kesramal, Mahuadarn, Daltongang and Noatoli. He was well known for his great ability to plan projects. Studying the need of the Parish he organised useful projects like co-operative stores, construction of dams, establishing model farms etc. Though some of which did not give the desired results. However his motto of “Think big and your deed will grow” made him very resourceful in his missionary work. He was one of the first to apply the 4 point programme of the Americans.

He was a very good organiser and systematic with a taste for files and cards in which the affairs of his Parish was accurately recorded. In Noatoli he composed a very useful catechism of the Sohality in Hindi. The Dharam Schools (Catechuminates) he ran were very well organised. His dehat visits (Mission tours) were very methodical and regular. All village churches were visited twice every year. When marriage Catechuminates were conducted he gave much of his time to them. The collection of mission funds was well organised and he received good response from the people.

His spirit of surrender was remarkable all through his life, in health and sickness it was outstanding. He sought the will of God in whatever he did, in the choice of his vocation, in the circumstances that lead the founding of the Congregation of the Handmaids of Mary at Kesramal and his transfer from there to Mahuadarn right at the infancy of the Congregation when it needed his guidance, care and support the most.

In his illness his spirit of surrender was conscious. To quote his pen words “After all these years of activities in the mission I can at the end offer something to God and I do so with complete submission and great joy”. (Letter from Zurich September 15th,1962)

“I reported to the professor for the 4th time. I could not even climb the table for his medical examination. I am becoming weak. I can no longer raise my arms for the cannon of the Mass, and how everything is for the best and my spirit is not dawn. God is good to me and I am happy to accept his divine will most willingly. I have great peace of mind”. (Heverlee 12th November 1962)

And again, “I must acknowledge that my sickness is a special grace from the Lord. He allows me to carry out fully the offering I made when I took my vows. It has seen an opportunity in my priestly life to realize the ideal of redemption and has given me to understand that I can fully offer myself for the mission and the people living there”. (Melsbrock 20th September 1963)

“I begin to realize that Our lord wants me to understand that it is not the number of activities that helps the spreading of the Kingdom in the missions, but a greater union with Him, who alone does the real work. In the mission I was trying to love the personality of Christ but I forget that Christ’s gifts are bestowed only on those who first give themselves to Him. Now the day has come to give Him all, even those plans which represented ten years of work, reflections, trails and failures. I give them all to Him”. (from his last notes)

He was always an exemplary praying priest. No amount of works awaiting him could prevent him from remaining in the Church or Chapel after the Holy sacrifice for a certain length of time, nor from praying his daily prayers with great devotion and making visits to the blessed Sacrament. All were edified to see him moving around praying his Rosary and prayer book in his hand. He was a great devotee to our blessed Mother and encouraged others to be devoted to her. When in 1951, the statue of Our Lady of Fatima was brought to India he was fully in command to organise its pilgrimage around Chottanagpur in his own grand style. His confidence in God our loving Father was shown forth in a special way throughout his life. He also was very zealous in promoting vocations.

He was clean in his habits and methodical in his way of living. He was very warm, available, approachable and cordial in dealing with others. In the community he was encouraging and appreciative. He would rather suffer some wrong than fight openly against it. He was polite kind and would avoid anything that would hurt others. Nothing went unnoticed by him. He was greatful to all and to the society in particular for whatever was done for him. Even in his painful illness he welcomed everyone cheerfully and went about in his wheel chair visiting some patients in the hospital consoling and encouraging them. No sinner could resist him and everyone was left with courage and patience to God’s will whatever the cost be.

“Be with Our Lord on the Cross and be with Our Lady at the foot of the Cross was his exhortation and his expectation of the Handmaids of Mary in times of trails and difficulties”.

His “thinking big” in the mission he loved and served revealed him a man of vision, an apostole driven by the charity of Christ to do and die and not to count the cost.

His long and painful illness revealed to the full the solidity of his spirituality and the strength of his character. From the first day to the end he remained through everything the perfect gentleman, always kind, smiling, courageous, a man of deep faith, with an unshakable confidence in God’s providence.





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