Philip Ursell recalls a man of many parts
I REALISED we were in for something unusual when Fr Harvie lit the candles on the High Altar, donned cassock and cotta and plugged his Cassio keyboard into the P.A. system of the church. This February weekday Evensong was an extraordinary performance. He sat in his stall on one side of the Choir and I sat opposite. The two of us sang the whole service, Psalms, Office Hymn, Antiphons, Magnificat, and all. Towards the end, three very scruffy “urchins” arrived early for choir practice, sat quietly near me and then joined in the Latin Salve Regina much better than I was able to do. Mungo, the Rector’s mostly-Labrador mongrel, lay asleep on the altar step throughout. There was no implication that it was anything unusual. This “big personality” just assumed this was the way one behaved in church – and so everyone did!
It was my first encounter with St Salvador’s, Dundee – a wonderful, lively, attractive charge – one of only two formally Forward in Faith parishes in that once glorious but now sadly benighted Scottish Episcopal Church.
Fr Harvie had visited Pusey House some months earlier and I had introduced him at breakfast to our undergraduate weekday congregation as a hero of the Catholic Faith. He had just hit the national press for taking on Richard Holloway over that Primus’s silly attempt to prevent the Bishop of Richborough from preaching at St Salvador’s. But Fr Paul was a big man, physically as well as spiritually, as fearless in his proclamation of catholic truth as his gentle ridiculing of vacuous modernity and lamentable lack of faith.
Paul Johnstone Harvie was born on 7th December 1936 in Melbourne, Australia, the eldest of four children. His father, Thomas, was born in Troon and brought up in Glasgow prior to emigrating to Australia. Musically gifted, while a student at Melbourne Boys’ High School he would play the organ at the School Speech Day to accompany the choral works before joining the double bass section for the orchestral pieces. After school he began to study Pharmacy but a growing awareness of vocation to the Priesthood took him to St Michael’s House in Crafers, South Australia, a seminary of the Kelham Fathers. He completed his theological studies at Trinity College, Melbourne. Ordained in 1961 to a Title in Melbourne, he spent a brief period at St Silas’, Pentonville, before returning to Australia as successively Chaplain of Melbourne Grammar School and Precentor of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta. In 1989 he was appointed Vice Provost of St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee, and three years later to be Rector of St Salvador’s.
St Salvador’s is a glorious church. It was founded by that truly great Scottish bishop (“the Pusey of the north”), Alexander Penrose Forbes, in the Hilltown tenement district of Dundee. Designed by Bodley, like many Victorian churches it was in need of repair by the time Fr Harvie was appointed Rector. He set about the renewal of its life, music, liturgy, building and community. There was a fine picture of him in the Daily Telegraph in January 1998, atop a ladder and gilding the rood screen. Though his previous DIY experience had been limited to wallpapering, he had obtained various grants to be trained himself in gilding and stencilling, and so he restored his church.
He was an Anglo-Catholic priest of the old school and his care and love of God’s house reflected his care and love for his people. He had the most remarkable gift of getting folk to do things for him by simply assuming they would – and so they did. Doctors and university dons joined him on Loch Ness in leading parish holidays for the children of Hilltown. Undergraduates from the two Dundee Universities and St Andrew’s were recruited into his parish team, and the two great St Salvador’s festivals, Candlemass and Holy Cross day became occasions of town and gown significance, with Vice Chancellors, Provost and other Civic leaders all present in Church.
The manner of his dying was as powerful a witness to Catholic Faith as was his priestly ministry. Six months ago, when it became clear that the cancer of his pelvis was inoperable and spreading, he began quietly and without complaint to prepare. Arrangements were made for an Australian priest friend to cover locum duty in his absence. Preparations for the visit of the Archbishop of York in September were finalised from his hospital bed and the Archbishop took him Holy Communion straight after the Mass in church. The last edition of his parish magazine, dictated from the Hospice where he died, contained no specific reference to the fact that he would not see his people again but was simply full of practical instruction concerning the continuing life of the parish. He carefully planned the details of his funeral and even two days before his death he summoned the undertaker to his bedside to be quite sure everything was clear.
The people of St Salvador’s are naturally devastated and bereft but they could not have had a better example of the Christian life or way of death. Hundreds attended the Requiem and no-one could have failed to be moved by the singing, the liturgy (as old-fashioned as Fr Paul) and the quiet reverence with which men and women and children paused briefly to touch the coffin of their priest as they came forward to Communion.
What a truly remarkable priest he was! A lovely and precious person has departed from this world, a priest whom we could ill afford to lose.
Philip Ursell is Principal of Pusey House in the diocese of Oxford