By PAUL A. BARRA
LANCASTER – After 25 years as a parish priest and teacher, Father Thomas F. Morrison is doing what he knows he’s supposed to be doing with his life. The convert to Catholicism is happy as a Catholic priest.
“When God calls and you answer, things happen,” he said. “Sometimes the priesthood is a function of love and faithfulness; sometimes it’s a great joy. I realize that I’m doing just fine.”
He may be doing better than that. Father Morrison has evolved into an ideal pastor, according to the parishioners of St. Catherine Catholic Church. He knows practically all of the people who make up the membership of the three parishes he ministers to, the 140 families at St. Catherine’s, the 70 families of St. Joseph’s in Chester and the 20 families of St. Michael’s in Great Falls.
“He rides the circuit,” said Lee Brandon, who came to St. Catherine in the same year the priest did, 1990. “He’s got a good attitude and works well with all the members of the parish.”
“Father really has a sense of piety with the Eucharist,” said John Hrenchir, who has been at the parish for 25 years. “He’s great with music and is a great homilist.”
Lester Cragan, an usher who has been in the parish since 1975, said that Father Morrison is fun to be around: “He adds a little spice (to church life) and makes you feel part of it. He gets the children involved.”
Mary Barry called Father Morrison personable. The 27-year parishioner agreed with the other members of the parish that the pastor is well liked and a gifted preacher, and more.
“He shows tremendous compassion and understanding for all of us,” Barry said.
Debbie Cain, who plays the organ and is co-director of the parish Bible School, said that the silver anniversary priest is so popular because he accepts people for who they are: “He’s forgiving and complimentary. He’s easy to work for because he’ll work with what you can do.”
With those kinds of feelings pouring out of his parishioners, it is no wonder Father Morrison is content with his lot as a parish priest. Even traveling 90 miles each weekend to celebrate mass has its advantages.
“When I go to (St. Joseph in) Chester, it’s like grandpa visiting. Deacon Jim Hyland is there and is good and efficient at what he does, so all I have to do is to love the people, build them up and encourage them, and then I go home. That’s what the priesthood is really about,” he said.
Before he got to that point, however, he had a long and interesting journey.
A young Tom Morrison came to South Carolina from Ohio with his family in time to attend Spartanburg High and Wofford College. While a sophomore in English at Wofford, youthful curiosity took him to various area churches. He wasn’t sure if he was searching for something or was just interested, but he looked around. Eventually he ended up at a Catholic church, St. Paul. He went back. Then he asked Father Chris Lathem if he could ask some questions. “One thing led to another,” he said, and on his 20th birthday (which happened also to be the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul), he was baptized as a Roman Catholic.
“I just found something in the church that filled a hole. I felt transformed,” he said.
Following graduation, his transformation matured. With the help of Father Joseph F. Hanley, he became a seminarian for the Diocese of Charleston. He graduated from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana with a master’s in divinity. His love of academics initially created some friction in his mind. He found that he had a gift for teaching and was, in fact, planning on a high school teaching career as an undergraduate; he wasn’t sure if parish ministry would offer enough opportunity to exercise that gift. It turned out that his ordination and his yearning to teach meshed perfectly. He taught a year at Bishop England High School while assigned to St. John in North Charleston, another year at the University of South Carolina in Aiken while he was assigned to St. Mary Help of Christians, five years at Wofford when he went back to St. Paul, and has been an adjunct professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of South Carolina in Lancaster for the past 11 years. He also teaches in the diocesan permanent diaconate program and assists Father Tom Evatt in the Continuing Education of Priests ministry.
Even with such a full and rich life, Father Morrison has never forgotten the most important lesson he learned in seminary.
“St. Meinrad really did affect me. It taught me to focus on spirituality and taught me that we’re here to help one another,” he said.
John Hrenchir knows firsthand about how well his parish priest learned that second lesson. Hrenchir is a Cursillista and a member of the Kairos ministry at St. Catherine. He visits weekly Kershaw Correctional Institute and celebrates a Communion service for Catholic inmates every Wednesday — except for the first one, when Father Morrison celebrates mass for them. But he had been drifting into a decidedly nonspiritual lifestyle before he met his pastor in the early ’90s.
“I came back to the church because of him. Father invited me to participate in my faith. It’s been wonderful ever since,” Hrenchir said. “He’s been a big part of my faith journey.”
Father Tom Morrison has been a big part of many people’s faith journeys in his 25 years of holy priesthood.
Since his ordination in 1976, he has served in St. Anthony in Walterboro and two missions, then at St. Mary in Aiken and St. John at the Naval Base; after that he went to Our Lady of Peace in North Augusta and St Paul in Spartanburg before he became pastor of St. Philip the Apostle in Lake City with sacramental duties at St. Patrick in Johnsonville, St. Ann in Kingstree and at Springbank Retreat Center. Finally, he came to the three parishes in Chester and Lancaster Counties, near the border of North Carolina.