Pearlie Harris, Acclaimed South Carolina Teacher and Volunteer, Awarded Benemerenti Medal

The Benemerenti Medal is awarded by the pope in recognition of exceptional service to the Catholic Church.

Pearlie Harris holds her Benemerenti medal and certificate
Pearlie Harris holds her Benemerenti medal and certificate (photo: Courtesy of Pearlie Harris)

Pearlie Harris has enjoyed a lifetime of honors. As a hospital volunteer and the first Black woman to serve as chair of the board of the Bon Secours St. Francis Health Care System, the 85-year-old South Carolina resident was recognized in 2011 with a building and a health care center that bears her name — the Pearlie Harris Breast Cancer Center. Harris said of the health care system, “In my opinion, when St. Francis reaches out to the community, they are, without question, the outstretched arms of the Church.”

In 2020, after 37 years of teaching and helping to integrate the local school system, Pearlie was again honored as the subject of a massive eight-story mural near the heart of downtown Greenville. Created by Australian artist Guido van Helten, the mural on the Canvas Tower on College Street depicts Pearlie flanked by young students. The mural brings to mind the positive impact that one great teacher can have on the lives of her students, while commemorating the 50th anniversary of Greenville’s school desegregation.

She was named Catholic Woman of the Year at her home parish, St. Mary’s of Greenville, and for two years was president of the St. Mary’s Woman’s Club.

In a recent phone conversation with the Register, Pearlie confided that she has received yet another honor, not yet widely known: She has just been listed in Who’s Who in America.

But one honor stands out above the others, surprising Pearlie, but perhaps not as surprising to those who know of her extensive charitable work and her years of service to the Catholic Church. Pearlie has been awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope Francis.


What Is the Benemerenti Medal?

The Benemerenti Medal is awarded by the pope in recognition of service to the Catholic Church. Originally intended by Pope Pius VI as a military decoration, it was expanded in 1925 to include civil and lay recipients, and both clergy and lay persons. The Medal is presented to members of the Swiss Guard after they have served the Holy Father for three years.

The Benemerenti Medal has been redesigned several times through the centuries, but the current medal is a golden Greek Cross with an image of Christ, his hand raised in blessing. The Medal hangs from a ribbon of yellow and white, the colors of the papacy. The arms of the cross each bear a symbol of the papacy: on the left, the papal tiara and crossed keys; and on the right, the coat of arms of the current pope.

Recipients of the Benemerenti Medal have served the Catholic Church and the world in many ways — as volunteers in mission lands and at their home parishes, as poets and theologians and writers, as organists and chaplains and altar servers. One recipient, Mario Kreutzberger, was not Catholic but was honored by Pope John Paul II for his service as Special Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF. Another notable recipient of the Benemerenti Medal is Maria Von Trapp, matriarch of the musical family whose story is told in the classic film “Sound of Music.” Maria was awarded the Medal by Pope Pius XII in 1949, perhaps for her service as a missionary in Papua, New Guinea.

Pearlie Harris was among seven Catholic leaders in South Carolina to be honored Sept. 19. Four received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross and three received the Benemerenti Medal. With her son, Pearlie traveled to Charleston where the Medal was presented by Bishop Robert Guglielmone on behalf of Pope Francis at a Vespers service at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Bishop Guglielmone congratulated her for her service, both to the community and to the Church in South Carolina.


Pearlie Harris’ Legendary Service

I talked recently with Pearlie Harris about the Medal and about her long career in education, as well as her volunteer service. She admitted that she was shocked when she first received a letter advising her of the award. “I’ve done nothing to deserve this!” she said.

But again, those who know her will disagree. Erik Whaley, president of the Bon Secours St. Francis Foundation, told the Greenville Journal, “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.”

Whaley explained that Pearlie Harris had been an educator by profession, joining the Greenville County Schools in the 1960s and retiring in the 1990s.

Pearlie is a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, an organization of lay faithful who serve the Holy Father, serving as witnesses to the faith and supporters of the Church and the living Christian communities in the Holy Land.

Pearlie served on the board at Bon Secours St. Francis and became its first African-American female president, and while she no longer serves in that capacity, she remains active as a volunteer.

“I’m not on the board anymore,” she said, “but I volunteer at the hospital and at the cancer center. Before the pandemic, they had a resource room, like a library. I was in charge of the materials that were there. I also volunteered to give them Communion, both in nursing homes and at their homes.”

Even in retirement, Pearlie continues to remain active behind the scenes, helping on several boards including Unity Health on Main, a community-led Community Health Center that serves the medically under-served area of Greenville County; Greenville Awareness and Community Engagement (GACE); the Greenville County Youth Orchestra; and Centre Stage, a year-round, professional theater in downtown Greenville. She has served on the board at St. Joseph High School in Greenville. Her term of service on the board for the Art Museum has ended, but she’s just gone back there in another capacity as the museum once again opens to the public.

Pearlie added that she especially enjoys her work with the women’s group at St. Mary’s in Greenville. They raise money throughout the year, and at year-end the funds raised are donated to St. Mary’s church or school, or to other local nonprofits. Several ladies from the parish have crocheted shawls and hats for the patients at the cancer center, but they haven’t been able to visit and deliver the items since the pandemic started. She hoped that things would open up soon, and she’d be able to deliver the gifts from her friends at St. Mary’s.

The 31st annual meeting of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium will take place Oct. 7-9 at the University of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame to Host 31st Annual Black Catholic Theological Symposium

The symposium, which is co-sponsored by the Department of Africana Studies and the Department of Theology at Notre Dame, will also include two days of private meetings for BCTS members to share working papers, and a listening session to hear about the experiences of local Black Catholics in Notre Dame.