Father... Dad

Father... Dad

Local priest offers rare look inside his adoptive family.
When Craig Harrison entered the seminary in 1982, he was 22 years old and there was a problem.

In fact, there were three problems. Harrison was the guardian of three teenage boys.

"I had to sign papers for the seminary that I was responsible financially for these kids," Harrison told 17 News.

And, when he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1987, there were those three boys again.

While Catholic doctrine doesn't explicitly prohibit priests from adopting, Harrison still needed permission from his bishop.

"I had to have a dispensation in order to be ordained because I had children. Priests in those days, I think there's five or so priests in the world who have adopted a child."

But, Harrison didn't stop with three. Over ten years, he's legally adopted three boys and was a foster parent or guardian to five more.

"I'm pretty sure I'm the only priest in the world who has ever legally adopted three, but raised eight children."

Harrison isn't boasting. He just believes it was part of his calling in life.

"I don't know how it happened, but I can just see God's hand in it," Harrison said with a gleam in his eye.

From first to seventh...there was Roy Keenan, age 10. "He had been in some 20 foster homes."

Then Rudy Negrete at age 12. " A great athlete with a lot of rage and family issues."

Along came Mark Shockley at 12 years old. "He was kind of a wanderer."

Greg Gerow was next, at 14. "His dad was gone from the family."

Billy Menta was 15. "His father died when he was young."

Then there was Herculano Garcia, 14. "His father died of a drug overdose…Herky was a great kid."

And, along came Jose Martinez at age 11. "Good athlete, but like Rudy had a lot of rage."

Juan Torrez is the baby of the group. "Here's a kid, at age 10, driving his parents' care around town."

Eight boys, from broken homes, with broken hearts; all suspicious at first of this stranger who came to be their friend and eventually a father figure.

"I never had a dad when I grew up so he's on that level, like a godfather," said Harrison's foster son Juan Torrez.

His adopted son Roy Keenan calls Harrison a 'life changer.'

Adopted son Billy Menta says Harrison filled a void that only a dad can fill. Rudy Negrete says he can't imagine where he'd be without Harrison in his life.

At Seven Oaks Country Club in September, his boys came to Bakersfield from all over the valley to honor Harrison at his 25th ordination anniversary celebration.

Monsignor Harrison's baptism as a foster parent started when he was 20 years old. He was a graduate of UCLA, had a good job with an L.A. accounting firm, and was deeply in love wth a girl named Lynn.

And, he tossed it all away. Harrison left L.A. and came back home to Bakersfield.

"I felt somehow God calling me to ministry. My parents were rather devastated," Harrison said sheepishly.

He took a part-time teaching job at Chipman Junior High, bussed tables at the Tam O'Shanter Restaurant, and worked weekends with at-risk kids at the Probation Department.

That's where he crossed paths with Roy Keenan, who was languishing in the foster care system. The dynamics of Roy's foster family was a revelation to Harrison.

"I was his mentor," Harrison said. "The foster parents and their two children would sit over here and ate, and what was on their table of food was not the same as the three foster kids who sat over here. When they bought food or clothes, these two kids had nice clothes, and these all had K-mart jeans and t-shirts."

Harrison says a judge asked him about being a foster parent. Soon after that, he became Roy's guardian and shortly after that his adoptive dad.

"I had a bunch of guards up, and it took a while before I believed he would be there forever, but he never failed and never gave up," Keenan said.

Not that Harrison never had misgivings about his foray into fosterhood. Just like any parent of a teenage boy, there were trials and tribulations.

"They taught me perserverance, endurance, and sometimes I'd go into my room and pray 'Lord I don't know what I did. I don't know how to reach this kid'," Harrison said.

But, Monsignor Harrison, who tends the flock in the St. Francis Parish, concedes that these weren't normal relationships.

"They never really bonded with me when they were young. They tested me," Harrison said. "What I really believe is that they felt that everyone in their life had abandoned them and that I was going to do the same. So, they tried everything they could to get me to quit loving them and believe me they came very close at times."

The bonding, Harrison says, came when his boys were in their 20's, out on their own, some of them raising families of their own.

And, Harrison is quick to point out, he didn't raise these boys on his own.

The life of a priest is a busy one, and Harrison farmed his foster kids out to scores of friends and their families while he was away doing the Lord's work.

"A multitude of people raised these kids with me," Harrison said.

Monsignor Steven Frost, who leads Christ the King Parish in Oildale, has known Harrison for some 30 years. He says Monsignor Harrison has always been able to quickly establish a support network because he's the first to offer support for another person.

"You know the Make-A-Wish Foundation? He's a personal Make-A-Wish Foundation," Frost said.

Harrison said half of his kids went to college because of wonderful people in the community who loved them and said, "Hey you're going to St. Mary's" or "You're going to Garces." "Do you think with what I was making, they would be going to Garces? They would never give me a priest's discount," Harrison joked.

The small village it took to raise his boys extended into the kitchen area of Harrison's rectory. That's because, for all his attributes, culinary skills aren't among them.

"Oh man, he can't cook," said Billy Menta. "You'd come home and it was either sandwiches or cereal, Pizzaville, or Andre's. If you wanted to eat healthy it was up to me to cook."

"My kids would come home and say we're going to the Maldonaldo's for dinner or this family or that family for dinner," Harrison admitted.
 
Monsignor Steven Frost said whenever he would get together with Harrison around the dinner hour and ask what he was making for dinner Harrison would always reply, 'reservations.'

Harrison recalls the night a parishioner brought a casserole to the rectory. He decided to heat it up and tell his boys he made it.

"I preheated the oven to 365. Next thing I know, the fire trucks are pulling up. I'd lived there for five years and there was still plastic around the racks with cookbooks that you get when you buy it, and I'd never taken them out so they caught on fire," Harrison recalled.

Harrison is also quite candid about what was cooking inside him that made him reach out to these boys.

It wasn't so much divine intervention or a foster kid crusade. Pulling him down this paternal path was his need to be needed.

"People have the wrong idea about me…'he's so wonderful and so forth'. They have no idea that the older I get the more I realize how needy I was," Harrison said. "You think they had needs? Adopting one kid should have been enough. I adopted seven. And, what they have fulfilled in my life, I probably am the most blessed person and the most blessed priest there is, and it's because of them."

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Harrison's paternal hunger was fully satiated. It was his 53rd birthday, celebrated at Rosemary's Creamery, with his extended family, all 32 of them. In attendance, his boys, their wives, and all those grandchildren.

"My grandkids only know me as 'Papa'," Harrison said.

Today, there's Roy the silversmith, Rudy the hospital executive, Mark the UPS driver, Billy the CHP officer, Greg the ag industry salesman, Jose the fitness trainer, Juan the construction worker, and Herculano the personal trainer and nutrition consultant.

Eight lives who crossed the path of a man of incredible energy, unflagging faith, and constant compassion.

You know him as Father Craig. They know him as Father…Dad.
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