Family and friends gathered at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Conway for a celebratory Mass on July 6 to mark 25 years of priesthood for Conway native L. Warren Harvey, who became Arkansas’ first African American Roman Catholic priest on May 28, 1988.
Father Harvey was born on March 3, 1954; the youngest of Eldridge and Mary Bunting Harvey’s 14 children. He attended The Good Shepherd Catholic Church and School, a church and school for African Americans, through the fifth grade. When the Good Shepherd School closed its doors in the wake of integrating the two schools, he transferred to St. Joseph.
In the following interview, Father Harvey reflects on his life experiences, growing up in Conway, and his decision to become a priest.
Nancy Breeden Mitchell: Are there any unique experiences as a child you’d like to share?
Father Harvey: As a child I was taught to care for our garden. Being a large family, we raised most of our food. It was the responsibility of every child to help out in the garden where we raised all kinds of vegetables. When I was old enough — about 12 years old — I was allowed to accompany my older siblings to ride on a truck in the summers to chop cotton. In the fall season, I was allowed to accompany my older siblings to pick cotton.
These summer and fall experiences continued until I was about 15 years old. When I was in the ninth grade, I was given a job of working with Mr. Bob Riedmatten who owned vending and pinball machines in Conway, Greenbrier, Guy and the Greers Ferry area. Bob’s wife was Jane Riedmatten, who owned "Flowers by Jane," located at 105 Mitchell Street in Conway. So, while working for Bob, I also learned floral design from Jane. To this day I still design arrangements of flowers at home and in church. Someone will order an arrangement for the front of the altar for the weekend, and after about three days, the arrangement begins to look puny. I will rearrange the flowers to create a look of freshness that will last until the next weekend.
When I started college at the University of Central Arkansas in the fall of 1972, I started working at the Conway Human Development Center as a kitchen worker after classes. I loved this job very much because it gave me the opportunity to help feed the children in the center. I would crack about two cases of eggs —that’s 24 dozen — and lay out several pounds of bacon on huge flat pans for the next day’s breakfast.
NBM: Was your family very religious? How did they feel when they found out you wanted to study to be a priest?
FH: My family has always been religious. But my mom and my dad were not sure if becoming a priest was the best thing for me. My dad, being Catholic, had never known a black priest. My mom thought that I would be sent off to Africa as a missionary and would never come back home. I assured them that I would be a priest in Arkansas and would remain in Arkansas. My Mom told me, "That is what they tell you now, but they will send you off and you will never come back home." You see, all the priests we had known were missionaries to Africa or the Philippines.
These priests returned home only once every five years, so my mom just knew that she would not see me for a long time. When I told my dad that I had spoken with our bishop about becoming a priest, he said that he didn’t think this was a good idea. The morning I left for the seminary my dad only said, "Son, I hope you know what you are doing." My mother was crying.
NBM: When did you feel the call to join the ministry?
FH: When I graduated from high school in 1972, I wanted to become a surgeon. I have always loved surgery and I had plans on first becoming a surgical nurse. My oldest sister, who is a registerednurse, recommended that I major in nursing. She said that my nursing experience would really help me in medical school. So, I majored in nursing and became a licensed practical nurse. All the time while I was in nursing school, I remained very involved in my parish of St. Joseph.
I was involved in our Bible study program and I taught in the Sunday school program. I also taught a religion class at St. Joseph High School. People would tell me that they thought I would make a great priest because of my dedication to my church.
During my third year in college at the University of Central Arkansas, I began to look seriously at what was involved in becoming a priest.
In 1980, I was invited by Father Zurelli to accompany a group of African American Catholics to Chicago to attend a National Office for Black Catholics conference. I had no idea what this was about, but I agreed to go along anyway. By the time the conference came around in the summer of 1980, the late Fr. Michael Aureli had been named Pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church in North Little Rock and he had taken Fr. Zurelli’s place.
Twelve of us African American Catholics journeyed with Fr. Aureli to Chicago to attend the conference. The opening Mass for the conference was held in downtown Chicago at a Franciscan monastery. I will never forget it. This was my first introduction to a Catholic Mass where all the music was black gospel. The Mass parts were sung in a black gospel setting. It was wonderful. I remember thinking that I could be a priest in this kind of setting. There were about 100 members in the gospel choir; there was organ, piano, guitar, drums, tambourines and hand-clapping. I thought that this is what I want to become.
I met a black priest who, I think, was from the Diocese of Raleigh in North Carolina. He was in my discussion group. He wasn’t wearing a collar, and I didn’t know he was a priest until I read his name tag. I was so impressed with this young black priest that I just wanted to follow him around everywhere he went so I could just look at him.
I was still a student at UCA, now a pre-med major. My involvement in these extracurricular activities and working the night shift really interfered with my pre-med studies. I didn’t realize that I was tremendously over-committed and as a result my grades plummeted. I had filled out the application to become a seminarian for the Diocese of Little Rock, but I didn’t mail in my application because my GPA had fallen to a 1.2. With a GPA like that, I felt that I would be turned down.
I withdrew from the university, put away my application to the seminary and just continued working in the ER on the night shift. At that time, I didn’t think seminary and priesthood would ever be a possibility for me.
Sometime between August and December 1981, I had a dream that I was in line with a bunch of men who were approaching this old priest sitting in a high-back chair on a dias. He had a box next to his chair and as each of the men walked up to him, they would kneel down and he placed a white collar around their neck. I kept letting everyone else go ahead of me until I was the only person left. He reached down in the box and took out a white collar and looked at me and asked,"Are you coming up here?" I told him that I was not sure if I should. He said to me, "Either you come now, or you won’t get another chance." I went up to him and knelt down and he put the collar around my neck. That was the end of the dream. Shortly thereafter I mailed my application to the vocation director and he in turn mailed it to St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington, La. The seminary college accepted me, even with my horrible GPA. I started St. Joseph Seminary College in January of 1982. At the end of my first semester in the seminary, my GPA was a 4.0; my second semester it was a 4.0; my third semester it was a 4.0; my fourth semester it was a 4.0. I never got below a 3.8 in all of my six and a half years of seminary and I graduated from Notre Dame Seminary Graduated School of Theology with a 3.8 and Cum Laude.
NBM: Was there anyone who influenced your decision — someone you admired or who acted as a role model for your decision?
FH: The priests that I had known up to that time left a good impression on me. There were a few individual priests whom I admired and they were very supportive of pursuing a vocation to the priesthood. Father Joe Pallo served as the youth director for the Diocese of Little Rock when I was in high school and college. I had the privilege of living with Fr. Joe when I did five months of internship in Fayetteville at St. Thomas campus parish. Father Michael Aureli was my mentor and spiritual director prior to my entering the seminary. I stayed with Fr. Michael a few summers and when there was break at the seminary. Bishop Andrew J. McDonald often challenged me to think about the priesthood, and his comments and support always meant a lot to me.
When I completed my seminary education it was Bishop McDonald who ordained me a priest. Perhaps one of the greatest influences in my life has been the Baptist pastors that I have known from my mother’s church. My grandfather and great-grandfather were Primitive Baptist preachers.
Since I am the youngest of the 14 children of my parents, I never got to know any of my grandparents. By getting to know the preachers in Mom’s church, it was like getting to know my grandfathers.
NBM: What attracted you to becoming a diocesan priest?
FH: The only religious order I looked at was the Holy Ghost Fathers. This order of priests served as my pastors for well over 20 years. But I decided that I didn’t want to be traveling a whole lot because I wanted to be close to my parents. I am very much a "home boy." If I became a diocesan priest I knew I would never be far from home because I would always be in Arkansas.
NBM: You have been a priest for 25 years now. Looking back, are you happy with your decision?
FH: I am very content and happy about answering God’s call to serve his people as a priest. I realize more and more each day the powerful mystery of sharing the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Indeed being a priest is really being a "father" to many people. I am so grateful to God for the many opportunities to serve and pray for the people of God.
NBM: What is your daily life like?
FH: I am usually up at 6 a.m. and will eat breakfast about 6:45 a.m. After breakfast, I pray Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. I celebrate Mass at 8 a.m. every day except Wednesday. Mass of Wednesdays is at 6 p.m. I am in my office by 9 a.m. I check my calendar to see what is scheduled for that day. I will return to my home at 11 a.m. to prepare my lunch, unless I am going out to eat with my staff. Late in the afternoon I like to exercise in the gym or in my home. Then about 5 p.m. I start supper. After supper I will work on my homily for the next day unless I have an evening appointment or meeting. I pray Evening Prayer and then watch the 10 p.m. news before heading to bed. I mention the above to give you an indication of what I wish every day could be like. Yet, in reality, every day is different and every day has its share of surprises.
NBM: What advice can you offer about prayer?
FH: I think the NIKE commercial sums it up, "Just do it." Go to a quiet place and talk to Jesus like you talk to your best friend.
NBM: What does one need to do in order to foster that relationship with Christ?
FH: I think a person needs to talk to Jesus several times each day. This is how we develop good relationships with our friends. When you want to talk to Jesus, very simply do, for He knows just what you need.
NBM: What has been the most rewarding aspect, in your 25 years, of being totally dedicated to God?
FH: I truly enjoy being a spiritual leader. When I am in touch with God working through me to serve others, I am humbled to tears. St. Francis of Assisi once said, "Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words."
NBM: To someone who is discerning a vocation, what advice would you give them?
FH: I would have them tell me their story. How has God been at work in their lives? I would ask them to tell me about the ups and downs in their life and where do they see God, especially in the valleys.
NBM: How many parishes have you been part of since becoming a priest?
FH: In May of 1988, I was assigned as assistant pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel parish in Little Rock. In April of 1989, I was named administrator of St. Augustine parish in North Little Rock. I remained in these positions until June of 1999. In June of 1999, I was appointed pastor of St. Augustine parish, St. Patrick parish and St. Mary parish, all in North Little Rock. In June of 2007, I was appointed pastor of St. Joseph parish in Pine Bluff. In June of 2009, I was given additional appointments as pastor of Good Shepherd parish in Fordyce and Holy Cross parish in Sheridan. I was relieved of my responsibilities in Fordyce in June of 2011. In January of 2013, I was appointed pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Little Rock, which is where I am at present.
NBM: Being the first African American priest from Arkansas, did you ever encounter any resistance?
FH: For the most part I have received the utmost respect from parishioners in every parish that I have served. I think that this has been the case because I really try to come across as a pastor who knows his job and knows it very well. I think the parishioners have grown to respect me first and foremost because I speak very good English. I had the good Benedictine nuns from Fort Smith to thank for that when they taught me in grades one through five at Good Shepherd School in Conway.
NBM: How many African American priests are there in the diocese now?
FH: I am the first and the only African American priest serving in the Diocese of Little Rock today. Currently, we do not have an African American seminarian. There are several black priests serving in the diocese today who are from other countries. We also have priests from India, Central and South America serving in our diocese.