2016-09-08 / Faith Community

Harris Takes Up Mantle of Holy Cross

By James Merolla


Rev. Marsue Harris, the new pastor at the Church of the Holy Cross in Middletown, recently celebrated the 35th anniversary of her ordination to the priesthood. (Contributed photo) Rev. Marsue Harris, the new pastor at the Church of the Holy Cross in Middletown, recently celebrated the 35th anniversary of her ordination to the priesthood. (Contributed photo) During the turbulent 1970s, the Rev. Marsue Harris, not yet a priest, cut her pastoral teeth on the gristle fed to her by inmates at Soledad and San Quentin prisons in California. In 1982, she brought that depth of experience to a similar chaplaincy at the ACI in Cranston.

Harris, now 76, with preaching stops in California, Brazil, Cuba, and 11 Rhode Island Episcopal churches, including the now-closed St. George’s in Newport, is at the Church of the Holy Cross on the corner of West Main Road and Oliphant Lane in Middletown. On Aug. 21, she celebrated the 35th anniversary of her ordination to the priesthood with the small parish that has openly welcomed her lead.

Harris’ resume is remarkably diverse. For 18 years, she wrote a column on religion for the Providence Journal. She preached at the ordination of the first woman priest in Brazil, and authored successful legislation to include Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman in the commemorative calendar honoring saints of the Episcopal Church. She arrived at Holy Cross late last year.

According to Senior Warden Scott Hovanec, the parish had been without permanent clergy since 1999. Hovanec’s goals for the small congregation included stability on the altar – no small task, as Holy Cross isn’t large enough to support full-time clergy. Working with the staff of the new Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely, and specifically with the Canon to the Ordinary, Rev. Canon Linda Grenz, the parish was introduced to Harris. After she officiated at a few services, they met to discuss her coming on as priest-in-charge.

“We were looking for both stability and experienced pastoral leadership that the lay members of the congregation couldn’t provide,” said Hovanec. “Rev. Marsue provides both, and also brings an infectious energy that is encouraging more members of the congregation to step forward and help within the church.”

Harris grew up in the Rust Belt of western Pennsylvania, earning a B.S. from Penn State in 1961. She left immediately for California, where she intended to stay forever. In Salinas, she found a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church, and was launched into prison ministry in 1973 by the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew: “When I was in prison you visited me.”

Friends Outside, a Quaker agency working with Soledad Prison inmates and their families, took Harris on as executive director. “I noticed most prison chaplains’ main message was that prisoners were going to hell,” she said. “My parish priest advised, ‘Why don’t you get yourself ordained?’ In those days, women were not ordained priests. But I moved to Marin, close to San Quentin prison, and entered seminary.”

There was general curiosity about how a woman could be a chaplain in a men’s prison. “Comments like, ‘Did you see the new chaplain? She wears lipstick,’ came back to me.” Prisoners who came to chapel out of curiosity often stayed, she said.

“It was finding a bright spot in an otherwise boring, negative existence. Old San Quentin cell blocks hold 500 prisoners on five tiers. One afternoon I had gone up on one of the tiers to talk with a prisoner and got caught in crossover – cell doors opened and prisoners all came out to go to the yard or class or visits. With chaos all around, I had to ask, ‘Jesus, are you sure I am in the right place?’ I was.”

Ordained in 1981 and looking for work, she was invited to Rhode Island by the Right Rev. George N. Hunt, her Salinas parish priest who by then had been elected Bishop of Rhode Island. “I wound up in prison again as Protestant chaplain at the ACI,” she said.

Most of Harris’s ports of call over the past 35 years have been met with a mixture of fierce resistance as well as enthusiastic support, including her influence on the women’s rights movement in her diocese. “I realized early on my position as a role model to little girls who made eye contact at the communion rail as I gave them the bread,” she said. “I could see it in their eyes: ‘I can do that!’”

“Listening to a soul’s yearnings is the heart of priestly vocation. I like to say clergy are tour guides of the holy mysteries,” she continued.

“My 18 years writing a religion column was aimed at those who did not go to church. I liked to address controversial topics – women’s ordination, women changing their name at marriage, abortion, the death penalty, business and political ethics, all generating responses of thanks or personal attacks about my character,” said Harris.

“But, wherever I go, I am proud to be an Episcopalian. We are allowed to ask questions. And the rhythm of our worship transcends the language of any country. In Cuba, Brazil, Italy, England, and Mexico, I know where I am. I have had great adventures, serving as chalice bearer next to Desmond Tutu, helping Dan Berrigan visit peace protesters in prison.”

A Wickford resident, Harris won’t say if this is her final stop. “The people of Church of the Holy Cross are good to allow me to be their priest. They take good care of me, one another, and of their beautiful gem of a church.”

“Please stop by,” she added, ever the priest with a mission.

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