It is with sadness this morning that we have learnt of the death of Monsignor James Harrington PA.
Monsignor Jim, as he was widely and affectionately known, became a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch on July 14 1957 when he was ordained by Bishop Edward.M. Joyce. He was born in Christchurch in 1932 the eldest of four, and after primary and early secondary schooling (Sisters of Our Lady of the Mission and Marist Brothers at Xavier College) was a first-day student at the newly opened Holy Name Seminary in Riccarton.
In the sixty years since his ordination he served in parishes throughout the Christchurch diocese including four appointments as Assistant Priest: Hokitika, Rangiora, Mairehau and Sockburn, and then in Runanga (Administrator), Parish Priest of St. Anthony’s Cheviot (including Scargill and Amberley), Administrator of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament (1973 – 1983), Parish Priest of Greymouth (1984), Parish Priest of Mairehau (1985 – 2002) and Parish Priest of Ashburton, Tinwald, Methven and Rakaia until his retirement.
Alongside his parish ministry Jim also served as Chancellor of the Christchurch Diocese, member of the Bishop’s College of Consultors, Council of Priests member, secretary of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament Trust, member of the diocesan Sites and Buildings Committee and the Diocesan Liturgical Commission and diocesan representative on the National Liturgical Commission.
Jim was often referred to as a man of the Church. He loved the Church and gave his life to the service of God in the Church in humility and obedience. His obedience enabled him to generously accept some difficult and challenging appointments.
The years of Jim’s priestly ministry saw many changes. There were twenty in his ordination class, including seven new priests for the diocese of Christchurch. As he would often reflect, ‘that was a different age’.
While he was very positive about many of the changes, the widespread loss of a sense of beauty and history was difficult for him. In 2009 he wrote of Holy Name seminary which was sold out of church hands a few years after its closure in 1978: “Having been born with an historical bent. I am pained whenever I past number 265 Riccarton Road, Christchurch. Behind the extensive wrought iron fence which fronts the property. lie lawns, trees, and rose gardens once lovingly cared for but now overgrown and neglected.”
I know that the destruction of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in the 2012 earthquake was a loss beyond what he could ever have anticipated, and was a great sadness for him. The Cathedral which he had known from his childhood and where he had served as Administrator for some of the happiest years of his priesthood, was a powerful symbol of the solidity, strength and stability of God. Now with his Cathedral in ruins, and living in retirement in a secular rest home away from the sacred rhythms and routines of church and parish life, he was left with God alone. In this challenging context his faith moved to a new depth of dependance on the God he loved and served. Yes Jim was a man of the church, but more than that he was a man of God.
While Parish Priest of Mairehau he oversaw the design and building of the new church of Our Lady of Fatima opened in 1988. Unfortunately this church did not survive the Canterbury earthquakes.
He loved the company of priests and from the time of his ordination he was able to bridge the social divide between older and young priests, and with the same ease across the cultural and national divisions between Christchurch dioceses’ NZ born and Irish-born priests.
James Harrington was also an artist. At the time of his golden jubilee of ordination in 2007 he commented: “Had God not touched me on the shoulder I would probably have been a commercial artist.”
You get an insight into the artist at work through Jim’s labour of love, the “Friends of the Cathedral” quarterly newsletter which was his initiative and his work for many years. The highlight of each issue is his own reflection on some aspect of art, beauty or history in his own experience from conversations or his own extensive travel to places of beauty. The more recent newsletters are available at this link.
In a 2009 Newlsetter Jim reflects on his first major commission as an artist. He was a student at Holy Name Seminary. “As a first-day student of Holy Name Seminary, is it any wonder that I am pained when I pass the property which holds so many memories? But there is another reason why I feel pained. In the chapel on the town side of the property are 16 stained glass windows which I designed, “Windows to the infinite they may well be. but sadly, at present they are doing more than ‘wasting their sweetness on the desert air’. It remained Jim’s hope that “a place may be found for sixteen stained-glass windows which are part and parcel of my history, and a never to be forgotten connection with Holy Name Seminary”.
The stained glass windows were made possible because a Jesuit seminary rector and Bishop Joyce recognised that Jim the artist and Jim the priest were one person. It was Bishop Joyce who sent him to Sydney to oversee the beginning of the manufacture of his windows. Later Jim commented “I was only too pleased to take up his suggestion, since the diocese was paying for it. And so it was that I had my first O.E.”
In large part the church climate through Jim’s years of priestly ministry saw art and beauty as an unnecessary extravagance. The gift of the artist was unfortunately rarely encouraged or even acknowledged by superiors who were occupied with tasks to be completed, placements to be filled and problems to be solved. Thus the most lasting legacy of Jim’s artistic ability remains the coats of arms of several Christchurch bishops.
There were notable moments when the vision and ability of James Harrington the artist and priest shone through, most memorably in the early 1970’s restoration of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. His homily on the occasion of the centenary of his cathedral itself shows the faith of the priest and artist. You can read his inspiring reflection at this link.
A visit to any church where Jim was pastor revealed a building maintained with the daily love that flows in the one who knows that a church is not simply one building among many, but a sacred place consecrated to God and in which God dwells. From the moment the pilgrim stepped inside the narthex, the hand of Jim the priest-artist was visible. In most churches the foyer becomes a storage area for unsorted brochures and lost property. If Jim was the parish priest every thing that needed to be present was there, and nothing that should not be there was visible.
While in recent years beauty is usually associated with expense, Jim stood alongside our ancestors in faith who knew that beauty is a reflection of holiness.
As we will pray in the collect of the funeral Mass for Jim:
Grant, we pray, O Lord.
that the soul of James your servant and Priest.
whom you honoured with sacred office
while he lived in this world,
may exult for ever in the glorious home of heaven.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Above: Holy Name Chapel as it is today with Jim’s windows
Below: Jim on the balcony of the Secretary of State in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome