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Harriet Prichard Pioneer

 Harriet Prichard (M.R.E., 1954) calls the people of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere “environmental refugees.” A nation of 9 million, Haiti can’t produce enough food for its people because it has only one percent of its original trees and has lost so much topsoil, according to Prichard. She has helped pull together a coalition of forty environmental agencies, the Haitian National Coalition for the Environment, to reforest the country. Through Alternative Gifts International (AGI), which Prichard founded, she will work to raise the $50 million needed to fund the project. “It’s a major undertaking, and some people say it’s impossible,” she admits.

Making the impossible a reality requires the pluck and skill of a pioneer, and Prichard has plenty of both. But no matter what trail she is blazing, Prichard says she has “an educational orientation,” and sees herself first and foremost as an educator.

Prichard’s time at Princeton Seminary, first as a student and then as a faculty member, formed her in profound ways. She was particularly influenced by the ecumenical vision of President John Mackay. “One reason I developed Alternative Gifts International is that there needs to be interfaith and ecumenical outreach to the world. Mackay was a great inspiration to me, both as a student and as a faculty member,” she says.

The idea for the first gift fair came to her in 1980, she says, when, after seventeen years of teaching elementary school music in the Los Angeles unified school district, she was working at Pasadena Presbyterian Church and developed a gift market for the church school. “I persuaded the children to make school kits for children in Bangladesh, and invited the church to support their gifts. It was the beginning of our efforts to enable young people to give significant gifts at Christmas that changed the world instead of the usual commercial gifts,” she says.

That first gift fair led to the founding in 1986 of AGI, which offers alternative markets in schools, social service agencies, clubs, and churches. AGI has two purposes: to abolish poverty, and to renew and restore the degraded environment. Yet this, too, is the work of an educator; as president of AGI, Prichard travels the globe to educate churches about the needs of the poor around the world.

It was her calling to teach that led Prichard to study at Princeton Seminary in 1952 after a year in her native California at San Francisco Theological Seminary. She grew up in the church, and several members of her family are Presbyterian pastors, but Prichard always felt called to a teaching ministry and not to the pastorate, even before women were being ordained. After graduating from PTS in 1954, she was called to University Presbyterian Church in Seattle as director of Christian education.

Two years later President Mackay asked her to return to Princeton to join the faculty as an instructor in Christian education, one of the first women so appointed, after Jean Cassat Christman and Dorothy Kirkwood Mooney. “That was a wonderful call he gave me,” Prichard says. She taught classes in the arts in Christian education and in children’s ministry, served as director of field education for women students, and as director of the Reigner Reading Room. After two years as an instructor, she was made assistant professor.

“I enjoyed working with the women,” Prichard says. She lived with the Master of Religious Education students in Tennent Hall, and encouraged the trustees to refurbish it. She was interested in early childhood education, and thought that the basement of Tennent would be a good place for a nursery school. She dreamed of a place at the Seminary for children, and went on to establish nursery schools in churches. Prichard says she was delighted to learn of the establishment of the Carol Gray Dupree Center for Children at the Seminary in 1995.

After five years of teaching at PTS, in 1961 Prichard returned to the church to work with children, and went on to serve several churches as director of Christian education. She remembers her years at the Seminary as “a gracious time that was life-forming.” At the same time, as for many pioneers, the path was sometimes rocky. She says, “The Seminary experience as the only woman on the faculty was isolated. People were kind and generous, but I was a token on several committees.” She remembers preparing diligently for committee meetings, only to find that decisions had already been made before the meeting, and she rarely had an opportunity to speak. “As far as making a major contribution, it was difficult. I was overshadowed by a real patriarchal faculty,” she says.

After leaving PTS, Prichard continued to advocate for women, and to educate her denomination, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., about the needs and gifts of women. She became a member of the General Assembly Mission Council, the Council on Women and the Church (COWAC), and the Council on Theological Education. When the members of COWAC visited the Presbyterian seminaries in the 1970s to encourage them to hire more female faculty members, Prichard was one of several women from COWAC who visited Princeton to talk with President James McCord, whom she remembers as receiving them very graciously.

Prichard had a part to play in hiring the next woman professor at PTS, Freda Gardner. When Dean Elmer Homrighausen asked Prichard in 1960 if she could recommend someone to succeed her at the Seminary, she recommended Gardner, to whom she had sent some of her field education students for supervision. Gardner became the first woman to be a tenured professor at Princeton Seminary.

For more information about Alternative Gifts International, visit www.altgifts.org. For more information about the Haitian National Coalition for the Environment, visit www.haitienvironment.org.

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Spring Summer 2008