Father Harris, now retired, answered call to priesthood after military and government service
Nov 2, 2020
As a retired priest, Father Alfred Harris knows how God’s call and plan for his life has continued to unfold over the years.
Father Harris -- who is now 76 and lives at the Saint John XXIII Residence for retired priests in Hyattsville, Maryland, was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1994 at the age of 50 after serving as a general counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services. As a young man, the West Virginia native served in the Army during the Vietnam War and received a Purple Heart after being wounded in the leg by shrapnel from a grenade.
Reflecting on becoming a priest later in life, Father Harris said, “I always had it in the back of my mind, that I wanted to do more. I had a religious bent.” When the time was right, he entered the seminary.
“It’s God’s way of calling us,” he said.
In an earlier interview for his 25th anniversary as a priest, Father Harris reflected on his calling. “You just feel it in your bones… You feel a desire for that. It grows. It takes a while, but the Lord is calling you.”
His father, Alfred Harris Sr., worked as an engineer for a gas company and died when the future priest was 11. Father Harris’s mother, Rose – who was a devout Catholic and active in their parish’s Sodality – worked for a department store, supporting their family, which included the priest’s older sister Joyce Harris, who later became a nurse and moved to the Washington area, working for the National Institutes of Health.
Father Harris’s leg injury from the Vietnam War has had lingering effects, and now in his retirement, walking is more difficult for him, especially climbing steps. He explained that because of the risk of falling, he stopped celebrating Masses at local parishes like many retired priests do.
Asked about what he learned from his war experience, the priest said, “It made me more conscious of other people and their needs, (that) the world isn’t just me.”
And he said it also made him aware of the inevitability of death for everyone, something “you don’t think about at that age.”
After earning a law degree at the University of Notre Dame, the future priest practiced law in West Virginia before moving to Washington and working for the government.
In 1994, he was ordained as a priest by Cardinal James Hickey, then the archbishop of Washington. The other two priests ordained for the archdiocese that day were Father William Byrne, the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac whom Pope Francis recently named as the new bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts; and Msgr. Edward Filardi, now the pastor of St. Paul Parish in Damascus.
Reflecting on his 26 years as a priest, Father Harris said, “I’ve liked it every place I’ve been.”
After his ordination, he served as a parochial vicar at St. Patrick Parish in Rockville, which he remembers as a “very nice, welcoming, warm parish.” At St. Patrick’s, the new priest was mentored by Msgr. Thomas Kane, the longtime pastor there who retired in 2005 and who died Aug. 21, 2020 at the age of 93. Msgr. Kane “was really wonderful to me and helped me a lot and taught me the things you need to know,” Father Harris said.
Then in 2001, Father Harris was appointed as the pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Washington. The members of that predominantly African American neighborhood parish were “very devout, good-hearted people,” the priest said, adding that they “were very kind to me.”
Five years later, Father Harris was named the parochial administrator and then the pastor of St. Mary Mother of God Church in Washington, where he served from 2006 until his retirement in 2018.
At St. Mary Mother of God, which offers a traditional Latin Mass, the priest had to learn how to celebrate that Mass, which he found to be a “very delightful and spiritual experience.”
“I learned it when I became pastor” there, he explained, adding that as a youth he had been an altar server for Latin Masses. “I picked it up. It’s not that hard to do.”
Describing the Latin Mass, the priest said, “It has a quality that is somewhat indefinable – the silence, the motions, the reverence of the priest and the congregation.”
Father Harris also celebrated English language Masses at St. Mary Mother of God, which is located in Washington’s Chinatown neighborhood and hosts a Sunday Mass for the Our Lady of China Pastoral Mission. While at St. Mary’s, the priest also got to enjoy occasional concerts and Washington Capitals hockey games at the nearby Capital One Arena.
A special highlight of his years as pastor at St. Mary Mother of God Parish was overseeing the installation of five paintings of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary by artist Henry Wingate that now adorn niches in walls around the church’s sanctuary.
Father Harris said it was inspiring to see the paintings being installed depicting the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation and the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple.
“It was nice to see those paintings up there, each time a new one came,” he said.
Now Father Harris said he is enjoying living at the Saint John XXIII Residence with fellow retired priests.
“It’s a very nice residence… I like that there’s somebody to talk to, like minded people. They’re nice guys,” he said, adding, “I haven’t met any priests I don’t like.”
In his retirement, Father Harris said he has been doing a lot of reading, including mystery books and religious and spiritual works.
When he was interviewed in 2019 for his 25th anniversary as a priest, he said what he liked most about the priesthood was “the ministry and the sacraments” and “the people who need them.”
In a recent interview, the retired priest said he misses the ministry of the priesthood very much, “the interaction with people, having them around, their problems (and) their joys.”
And the Army veteran and former government worker who became a priest said he remains well aware how “God has been leading me over the years” and continues to lead him.
(This story is based on a recent interview of Father Harris by Mark Zimmermann, the Catholic Standard’s editor, and on a 2019 profile by writer Kelly Sankowski about his 25th anniversary as a priest.)
Retired Priests Collection
Catholics of the Archdiocese of Washington are invited to express their gratitude to the priests who have provided them and their families with the sacraments at all stages of their lives, by donating to the Retired Priests Collection taken up at parishes on the weekend of Nov. 7-8, 2020. People can also donate to the collection by going online to adw.org/rpc or by texting the word “Priest” to 301-231-1816.