Pearlie Harris, a longtime member of St. Mary’s Parish in Greenville, thought it was a joke, the letter notifying her that Pope Francis had awarded her the Benemerenti Medal.
“I was shocked when I got the letter from the bishop saying I was being given this medal. I said, ‘This is a terrible mistake.’ I’ve done nothing to deserve this.”
Harris was raised Baptist but converted to Catholicism when she became a mother. Her late husband, Marine Master Sgt. James Harris, was Catholic.
“When I told him I was pregnant he said, ‘You know, our children will grow up Catholic,’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ I had no idea that I actually meant it,” Harris, 85, jokes.
The citation notes Harris’ long service to the parish and highlights the fact that she was the first Black person to serve as chair of the board of Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in Greenville. Harris still volunteers both at the parish and the hospital.
“As beautiful as Pearlie Harris is on the outside, she is even more beautiful on the inside. She has been part of our ministry for so long and has led so admirably, whether it be from her spot on the St. Francis Foundation board, the hospital board, or otherwise,” said Erik Whaley, president of Bon Secours St. Francis Foundation. “We’re so blessed to have a facility that bears her name, as she is such an advocate for breast health in our community. She’s a person with a true servant’s heart and completely embodies the Bon Secours mission of being good help to those in need.”
A teacher by profession, Harris joined Greenville County Schools in the early ’60s and retired in the ’90s. The city honored her contribution to Greenville in 2020, featuring her in a prominent mural on the exterior walls of the BB&T building downtown as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Greenville County Schools.
Harris, accompanied by one of her sons, traveled to St. John’s Cathedral in Charleston to receive the honor in late September. “It was oh, so nice,” she said. “It was just delightful.”
“The Benemerenti Medal is awarded by the Pope to those members of the clergy and laity for their service to the Catholic Church,” according to a statement from the Diocese of Charleston. “We are extremely grateful for all that Ms. Harris has done for the betterment of her local community and for the Church.”
Benemerenti Medal fast facts:
- “Benemerenti” is formed by two latin words — “bene” meaning good or well and “merenti” meaning deserved or earned
- First awarded for military service to the Pope and later expanded to include members of the laity and clergy