Thomas Harris accepts a framed image of his great-grandfather, N.W. Harris, created by a Filipino artist, from Dr. Cristina Manabat, current president of Harris Memorial College. Dr. Geraldine “Gigi” Velasco-Mencias and Ms. Elaine Esguerra, Harris supporters in the Chicago area, join several generations of Harris men for the photo. PHOTO: COURTESY HARRIS MEMORIAL COLLEGE
By Christie R. House May 18, 2019 | ATLANTA
The Harris family legacy of giving started six generations ago with Norman Wait (known as “N.W.”) Harris, born in 1846, in Becket, Massachusetts. N.W., it seems, never forgot his humble roots in New England. He was concerned about young people in the U.S. and abroad who had no means to pursue higher education. While his banking business grew, with major centers in Chicago, New York City, and Boston, he became involved in philanthropy, and notably Methodist-related educational institutions, among other projects. Today, Harris Hall, the home of the current History Department of Northwestern University, was made possible by a gift from N.W. Harris. One institution N.W. helped to found outside the United States was Harris Memorial Collegein Rizal, Philippines.
Thomas Harris, N.W.’s great-grandson, said in an interview that his cousin became interested in the family connection to the college in the 1990s. In 2000, his family drew up a new formula for its charitable activities – to support organizations that Harris ancestors had created or supported. “It was good way to get the family to come together around a common set of philanthropic organizations,” said Thomas. Active in family affairs for 40 years, Thomas Harris worked as a banker and a nonprofit consultant.
In November 2018, Dr. Cristina Manabat, the current president of Harris Memorial College, was invited to meet with the Harris family at one of its regular business meetings. “We praise and thank God for providing Harris Memorial College a wonderful and rare opportunity to personally meet and share about our school with members of the Harris family,” Manabat said in an interview. “Norman Wait Harris and his family will always be remembered, as the name of our school bears their name.”
Manabat’s presence at the Harris meeting was coordinated by Global Ministries’ development office. Thomas confirmed the family meeting had never had a guest before. “It was wonderful to meet Dr. Manabat. I’ve been working on this family philanthropy for 25 years, and we’ve been making gifts to Harris for 19 of the 25 years. We were all very impressed, and we continue to support the college.”
N.W. also made a standing bequest to Chicago Training School for Home and Foreign Missions. In fact, N.W was president of the board of trustees of the school and he founded the deaconess pension fund.
“He made bequests to many Methodist organizations, such as a Methodist deaconess orphanage in the Philippines. In Illinois, he also supported Jennings Seminary, in Aurora, and Wesley Hospital. He established a fund with the Chicago Community Trust that supports some of these same organizations on an ongoing basis,” noted Thomas. Along these lines, N.W. decided to support a small Methodist Bible school in the Philippines as a school for deaconess training. He gave the gift through the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS) of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC).
In Chicago, growing enthusiasm around both domestic and foreign Methodist missionary outreach prompted the founding of the Chicago Training School for Home and Foreign Missions. In 1885, Lucy Rider Meyer and her husband, the Rev. Josiah Shelly Meyer, convinced a group of Chicago Methodists to endorse the organization of the school, and they began raising funds. N.W. donated the land for the construction of its main campus and chapel. In a few years, the institution became the largest Methodist training school of its kind in the United States.
The Chicago Training School offered studies for deaconesses, whose main work concentrated on immigrant and poverty-stricken communities in cities, and for women entering the WFMS, training as teachers and nurses for overseas mission stations.
Thomas Harris did not think his great-grandfather was the only Chicago Methodist to support the Harris Bible School. “By 1900, N.W. was a very successful business man in Chicago. I don’t know the whole story, but in 1903, he made a gift to the Bible School in Manila. I suspect, there were other Methodists in Chicago who supported the school,” Thomas noted.
Thomas’ hunch is likely correct. It is not a stretch to make the connection that Methodist donors supporting the Chicago Training School would be interested in a school that afforded young women in the Philippines the same kind of opportunity.
Methodists work in a small world
Like many U.S institutions, the Chicago Training School declined sharply in the wake of the Great Depression. In 1934, Garrett Biblical Institute, founded in 1853 as the first Methodist seminary in the Midwest, merged with the Chicago Training School to form Garrett Theological Seminary. After the 1968 union with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, Garrett merged with the Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1974 to form Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
Manabat received scholarships from Global Ministries and traveled to Chicago to study at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1990 for her master’s and 2007 for a Ph.D. in Christian Education. She was effectively returning to a place near and dear to her institution’s first benefactor, a place N.W. Harris called home and helped to build.
N.W. would likely be pleased with Harris College today. It has continued to serve the Philippines in the way that the early MEC leaders dreamed it would. Today, Manabat confirmed, “Harris Memorial College is a center for deaconess training and formation not only for the Philippines, but also for Asia. Its mission is to educate, train and prepare young women for full time ministry as deaconesses in local United Methodist churches in the country.”
Manabat continued, “The majority of the student deaconesses come from poor families. More than 80% enjoy either full or partial scholarship until they graduate. They can also receive a food subsidy of about 50% and discounts on tuition and piano fees every semester.”
So, in all ways, Harris Memorial College has continued its Methodist legacy in mission, providing educational opportunity and spiritual formation, mainly for young women and today, even for a few young men. The college honors the Harris family legacy as the family, in turn, supports and honors the college.
House is the senior writer/editor for Global Ministries.