Bishop Barbara Harris, the recipient of the 2004 Blackwell Award, passed away late last week at age 89. The first woman ordained as an Episcopal Bishop, Harris broke new ground in the worldwide Christian community while preaching a message of love, joy and equality “with an inquisitive mind, keen intelligence…indomitable spirit and determination to overcome odds and accomplish goals,” as former Board Chair Maureen Collins Zupan ’72, P’09, L.H.D. ’16 said in her Blackwell Award ceremony introduction of Harris.
In the announcement of Harris’ death, the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates of the Diocese of Massachusetts wrote that the Episcopal congregation’s “hearts are truly heavy at the loss of one who has been a faithful and altogether irrepressible companion, pastor and inspiration to us in the Diocese of Massachusetts for 31 years. At the same time our hearts are truly buoyed by the hope which she preached and the conviction she embodied for us throughout all these years.”
Raised in Philadelphia, Barbara Clementine Harris graduated from the Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism. She joined Joseph V. Baker Associates Inc., a national public relations firm headquartered in Philadelphia in 1949. She was president of the firm in 1968 when she joined the Sun Company as community relations consultant. She later was named manager of community and urban affairs and headed Sun’s Public Relations Department from May 1973 until becoming a senior staff consultant at Sun’s corporate headquarters in January 1977.
She attended Villanova University, studied at the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield, England, and graduated from the Pennsylvania Foundation for Pastoral Counseling. Ordained to the diaconate in September 1979, she was ordained a priest in 1980.
Harris served as priest-in-charge of St. Augustine of Hippo Church in Norristown, Penn., from 1980 to 1984. She also served as chaplain to the Philadelphia County prisons and as counsel to industrial corporations for public policy issues and social concerns. In 1984, she was named executive director of the Episcopal Church Publishing Company and publisher of The Witness magazine. In 1988, she took on additional duties as interim rector of Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate.
In September 1988, she was elected suffragan (assisting) bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts. On February 11, 1989, she was consecrated a bishop, the first woman to be ordained to the episcopate in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Harris was active in professional and community organizations, as well as in national church service. A member of the Union of Black Episcopalians and a past president of the Episcopal Urban Caucus, she represented the Episcopal Church on the board of the Prisoner Visitation and Support Committee and was a member of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. She served as a member of the Board of Trustees of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and as vice president of Episcopal City Mission, an independent agency of the Diocese of Massachusetts working for and on behalf of the urban poor.
Harris received honorary degrees from numerous colleges, universities and theological schools, including Yale University and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.
After her retirement in 2002, she served as an assisting bishop to Bishop John B. Chane in the Diocese of Washington D.C., continued to preach and volunteer in the Boston area, and co-authored a 2018 memoir, Hallelujah, Anyhow!
In 2004, the Colleges presented Harris with the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, given in honor of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first woman in America to receive the Doctor of Medicine degree. The award recognizes women whose lives, like Elizabeth Blackwell’s, exemplify outstanding service to humanity.