Priests I Have Known: Harry Davis
Harry Davis educated generations of students in biblical studies at St Patricks College Manly.
Carefully organised teaching method was not his trump card. But his enthusiasm for his topic was infectious, and I for one was left with a life-time love of scripture because of the passion who held for the scriptures.
There are unforgettable characters in our lives whose stories grow in affection and colour as they are told and retold. The stories about Harry Davis, his twisted anecdotes and spoonerisms were legendary. I refuse to add to them. They can often reduce the memory of this extraordinary priest and depict him as an object of fun. This would do his life a great disservice.
Born in Five Dock, as a schoolboy cricketer he was chosen to play in a NSW representative team but declined the opportunity. However in no way did that lessen his love of sport, particularly in more mature years, the game of golf. Soon after school at Christian Brothers Lewisham he decided to study for the priesthood. After a short time at St Columba’s College Springwood, he was sent to Rome to complete his studies.
He was in Rome when World War II broke out and later began helping some fellow New Zealand students who were hiding allied airmen from the occupying German forces. When Pope Pius XII visited his college, Davis spoke of his fears that there would be repercussions for the students and the college and asked the Pope’s advice. “You must do what you must do,” the Pope said, which Davis interpreted as meaning that he should keep doing what he was doing.
Not long afterwards Davis was out walking when a man passed him a note warning that the dreaded Gestapo were aware of his activities. He was under surveillance.
Prudently Davis stayed inside the college walls until the end of the war. When he finished his Roman courses, came away with high degrees in theology, scripture and philosophy. The boy from Five Dock would come home as Dr Harry Davis.
He arrived home to Sydney immediately after the War in 1946 and reported for duty. The appointment was Darlinghurst, the busy centre of a city going through significant change – scarce resources and rationing food and clothing, all trying to recover from the uncertainties of War, soldiers returning and trying to readjust to normal life, the challenges of rebuilding marriages. Interesting days in a lively part of Sydney.
You could almost hear the Archdiocesan consultors saying: “ a couple of years at Darlo will get these Romans back and have their feet firmly on the ground once again.’ Harry was not the only overseas student given this experience. It seemed to be the standard procedure or the time.
After this period readjustment Harry Davis was deemed to be ready to climb into the teaching rostrum as the newly minted professor of Sacred Scripture at the major seminary at Manly. His fervour for his topic would continue for the next twenty years.
These were years of immense advancement in biblical studies. New and exciting research into archaeology of the Holy Land, studies of its languages and customs, the development in anthropology and history brought insight to the ancient texts almost monthly. Biblical studies began to attract media attention. Discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls became copy for Time Magazine. The whole science of the study of he Bible was advancing as quickly as rocket science.
One initiative that Harry Davis organised was to bring international scholars to Sydney to encourage this new interest. English scholar Fr Alexander Jones who had contributed to the new Jerusalem bible, and Canadian Jesuit David Stanley a recognise expert in New Testament studies would be two of them. Their public lectures were offered to packed houses. They were heady days for lovers of the scriptures.
In the late sixties he became the Rector of St Patrick’s College, where he navigated the formation of the students towards a new sense of their ministry dictated by the insights of the Second Vatican Council.
On his retirement from St Patrick’s Harry took up parish responsibilities in the Sacred heart parish of Pymble in Sydney’s upper North Shore. During those twenty-seven years at St Patricks and later at Pymble Harry Davis cemented his reputation as a scholar, a large-hearted host, and indeed a genuine Christian humanist in the richest sense of that term.