Fr Andrew Morrison, SJ
By Roxana Kawall
February 1, 2004
Fr Morrison and fellow Jesuit, Fr Malcolm Rodrigues (r) with Sarina Kawall at a birthday celebration in the Hotel Tower on June 1, 2001
What can one say about Fr Andrew Morrison, SJ? Having once famously been labelled the 'Vicar General of Lies,' perhaps only the truth will suffice now.
He was a most admirably exasperating man in his single-mindedness, an amateur newspaperman with - to tell the truth - no particular style to speak of, and - to tell the truth again - absolutely no idea about the use of commas, and yet he was perhaps one of the most famous editors/priests this country has ever produced.
Born eighty-four and a half years ago on June 5, 1919, he was the second child of six children, four boys and two girls. His father had died when he was twelve, and the family had been brought up by his mother, herself a famous midwife, still remembered today. The family eventually all migrated, not without some sacrifice and juggling on their part to allow his studies for the priesthood.
He always maintained a close relationship with them, delighting on his return from trips abroad in relating the good time they had given him. The list always included the restaurants he had been taken to and what he'd had to eat; thin as a rake, precariously balancing his trade-mark straw hat on his head and clutching the traditional battered and ubiquitous briefcase, one did wonder where he had put it all.
As a boy, he had attended the Jesuit St Stanislaus College, and then dabbled as an accountant. About this part of his life, he would gleefully relate how frightened everyone would be when they saw 'the accountants' coming, and how "royally" they would consequently be treated. However, his heart lay in people rather than in numbers, and in 1949 he entered the Society of Jesus in London as a novice. Eight years later he was ordained a priest.
Fr Morrison receiving his Arrow of Achievement from the late President Cheddi Jagan in 1993
His early work as a Jesuit priest in Guyana lay mainly in parish work such as in the Sacred Heart parish, and in youth work, with organisations such as the Catholic Youth Organisation as well as the Green Light Organisation (GLO), about which latter he was inordinately proud and therefore quite rightfully punished in much later years by little snatches of song being hummed in his hearing: "GLO little glowworm, glimmer, glimmer... GLO." He also functioned as Vicar-General , or rather, to tell the truth again, did not exactly function in later years, being obsessed with the Catholic Standard.
And it is in this role, as amateur, untrained, comma-less and single-minded Editor of the Catholic Standard, that Guyana honours him.
The Society of Jesus is known for throwing its members - who are supposed to be willing - either to the lions or in at the deep end; Fr Morrison's case was no exception. Without ado or training at all in the field, he was told he had to be Editor of the Standard as of July 1, 1976. He recounted riding along on his bicycle, having had his first struggle with the beast called 'The Editorial,' and thinking in despair, "Lord - have I got to do this every week? He did - and for eighteen years.
Quite simply put, not by training or by talent, but by spirit and by just who he was, he was the right man for wrong times.
They were times when the Catholic Standard was the only non-government, non-political party-owned form of media in a tightly-controlled country then without access to international or local television, and his role is well summed up in the comments of one lady who called to commiserate: "He was a man of integrity - which is very hard to find these days. He always rose above race, ideology - and sometimes even religion - and took a moral position." He himself would have said that it was his belief in God that made him what he was.
His guiding principle in writing was that the man in the marketplace had to understand it, and indeed he loved what he termed "doing my rounds," walking around selling the paper in the market himself, and talking to the people there. He was a man who loved Guyana and Guyanese, and loved to boast vicariously about those Guyanese who had done well. In return, all Guyanese, not just the Catholic community, felt they 'owned' him.
His single-mindedness made him believe that it was the duty, and moreover the obligation of everyone to support him and give him information. He truly could not comprehend that some people might not have wanted to. When I once, as diffidently as I could, suggested that there was a possibility, just a slight possibility, that maybe people could have loyalties to their firms, and company secrets, and might not want to divulge these, or risk their necks, he looked at me in what I would like to say was patriotic innocence, but - to tell the truth - was aggressive scorn. But get information he did, perhaps largely because of the automatic trust conferred on him as a priest.
One very personal example of his single-mindedness to the Standard was demonstrated when some five years after I had left the paper, I called him from abroad to tell him the happy news that I was expecting a baby. "Oh No!" he yelped instantly. "And I was waiting for you to come back to the Standard!"
Another perhaps more dramatic example of his single-mindedness, a dedication without fear or favour to getting all the facts of the story, no matter who or what it was about, was around the time of both the Robert Chappell story and the Rabbi Washington preliminary enquiry. I had just returned home from the latter, to find the house broken into, documents rifled through and cutlasses and a log of wood left behind. To my horror I found he had written up the story, going into minute details of how entry was gained. It also happened to be the time of the kick-down-the-door bandits. "You've written a map for any thief, and you know I'm alone there!" I said.
"I did think of that," he admitted blithely; but nonetheless had still written up the story, and in the way he had. To my shame I censored him on this story.
Others will testify to this trait of single-minded expectation of support. During the various attempts by the then government to shut down the paper, four libel suits were filed against it over a very short space of time in 1982, after which the Standard had to be vetted by lawyers David De Caires and Miles Fitzpatrick every single week of every year. Father Morrison had extremely high regard for these two, and found their advice invaluable. He once confessed to me as we wrote up other news stories under the desk during these court hearings, that he only attended these sessions for the sheer pleasure of hearing Miles Fitzpatrick address the court. When the Stabroek News came on the scene in 1986, he welcomed it with open arms and great relief.
He was, after all, not a man without stress. He was a slow, two-fingered typist, whom I would tease as being "death to technology," and the Standard was, and still is, a technologically archaic set-up. One German journalist from Vatican Radio visited only a couple of years ago, and described it even then, in appropriately biblical language, as being "like something out of the ark." In Fr Morrison's time, if typing errors occurred, the word or sentence would have to be re-typed on another sheet of paper, laboriously cut out, and then pasted over the error. He was particularly proud of a machine on which the headlines could be punched out, letter by letter onto strips that could then be pasted down.
One infamous night, he knocked the entire contents of the glue bottle over the finished flats. That particular horrendous incident was before my time, but when the tale was handed down to me, in sheer fright at repetition I decided to introduce what was humorously known amongst the Standard set as the Blue Tack Revolution - the use of simple, shiftable blue tack instead of accident-prone glue. Although Andy had never heard of blue tack, it is a tribute to the man that in his later years he went abroad to find out what computers were, in order to write his book, Justice. It was an act of self-advancement for which I never forgave him, so I was pleased when I found out only this year that he had not mastered the art of the e-mail. Nonetheless, in those days, glue, typing cartridges, paper, headline strips and just about everything - including the blue tack - were not available, and had to be accessed from the long-suffering Jesuit Missions office in London, without which office the paper indubitably would not have survived.
Hand in hand with the role of editor, therefore, went the role of beggar. He was, admittedly, very successful at this too, and the paper somehow clung precariously to life. If it survives to 2005, it will celebrate its hundredth birthday.
Father Morrison won six awards between 1983 and 1994 for his struggle for press freedom, but his favourite story out of these was of being in Peru for the Inter-American Press Association award. Among the other winners receiving various prizes were large Sunday newspapers you could wallpaper your house with. When his turn came, he gingerly held up his tiny Standard in the spotlight, to show what had won the press freedom award. There was a disbelieving gasp at first from the crowd, silence and then wild cheers.
Despite the stress, Fr Morrison was a cheerful, active man with an indomitable spirit. Those who knew him well, however, all knew there was one area you couldn't enter, and that was his driving. "I learnt to drive in two weeks!" he would boast.
"And it shows," I would retort, infuriating him. I was in a constant state of grace in those days, for I learnt to say my Act of Contrition silently every single time I got into his car to go on a story hunt, and to say in calm and unhysterical tones: "Andy - the bridge, the BRIDGE ANDY!"
"Oops! I didn't see it," he would admit, swerving wildly into oncoming cars. In recent years his Jesuit Superiors had quite a tussle with him to get him to stop driving and accept a driver. He was extremely stubborn on this point, until he had two close wake-up calls. Calling me to tell me about it, he said: "Don't tell."
Despite all the hardships and persecution, Fr Morrison never bore any ill-will against those opposed to him; he really forgave them, and considered it unworthy to retaliate with libel suits of his own. At the time when Rabbi Washington was charged for an internal murder within the House of Israel, Fr Morrison and I, in the presence of Miles Fitzpatrick, had a meeting with him, during the course of which he told Fr Morrison very deliberately: "Another man is sleepin' in yo' grave," and repeated it, again very deliberately, referring to the fact that Fr Bernard Darke, SJ had been assassinated in mistake for Fr Morrison.
This must have been very hard for Fr Morrison to take, but during the Preliminary Inquiry the Rabbi slipped me a note. In it he asked Fr Morrison for forgiveness. When I took it back to the Standard office, Fr Morrison immediately said: "And I do forgive him." Proof of the pudding was that very many years later, after 1992, we visited the Rabbi together. With tears in his eyes, he confided to us that he suspected he had a certain form of cancer. Obviously even the Rabbi too had an expectation of getting care and concern for himself from Fr Morrison.
After he retired from the Catholic Standard, Fr Morrison took time off to write a book about his Catholic Standard stories, entitled: Justice: The Struggle for Democracy in Guyana - 1952-1992, edited by Andaiye. For the last seven years of his life, he was posted as Parish Priest in Linden, with at one point responsibility for Bartica. He loved it. His honed begging skills once again came in useful; he acquired steelband pans for the youth, and even inveigled President Jagdeo into donating a computer with the works for the youth and children. His success at this latter surprised even himself; he confessed to me he was expecting a second-hand computer, and was boyishly excited when he got what seemed to him a brand-new computer.
He also regularly went to beg from Food for the Poor, and even transported chicken from Georgetown to Linden for their fairs. Earlier this month he recounted being at Bounty Farm, and gleefully told how all the truck drivers and policemen or guards crowded around him, calling to each other: "Hey! Come and see Father do magic"! He produced eggs from under their shirts, much to their delight.
It was during this time at Linden that he told me that he was really only now coming to the depth of prayer. What he felt at the end would really matter in human beings' lives would be their personal relationships with each other, he said. "Trust in the Lord!" he would frequently admonish. To show himself a living example of this trust to me, he came to visit and lectured me on how calm and stress-free he himself had become. Upon leaving my house, he discovered his car keys were locked in his car. Uttering sounds of annoyance and stamping, he looked to me remarkably like a man in stress.
In the end, the Fr Morrison I felt I could confide in was not the famous newshound, or even Fr Morrison the priest as professional Christian, but Andy, simply a human being who cared, and it is this Andy, my friend, whom I mourn.
During his last two weeks on earth, spent in the hospital, I would say that he was filled with joy and peace, except once when he spoke of the problems of Linden, and started to cry, maybe thinking of all the work still to be done there. His moments of lucidity came and went, and towards the end it was almost impossible to understand what he was saying. But although he could hardly speak, he was still trying to sing; at one point the words of 'How great is our God' came across clearly. At another point he was trying to pray for someone, I do not know who, but could see the energy and life force he was putting into it, the sheer draining effort to sound the words clearly.
Typically, his ubiquitous briefcase was with him; he kept searching for something in it. At one point I helped him to open it; the old Andy returned. With some asperity he gasped, and said only one lock was working, I had to be careful - and promptly turned it upside down. The night before he died, he told the nurse he wanted his shoes - he was going home.
Without a doubt this nation owes Fr Andrew Morrison, SJ, a great debt of gratitude. But it is interesting to note how many of those writing tributes have mentioned their children. I rather suspect that much more than the nation's gratitude, he would have liked to have known that one little girl felt her dolls too would want to know of his death, especially the little bald-headed doll that other children laughed at and he always enquired after. Announcing his death to her dolls, she said: "Father Andy is now in heaven being shown the dolls-house there and being fed strawberries by a little spirit-child." Rest in peace, Andy.