Good Works, Abundant Grace

portrait of Frances G. Harpst


Every Wednesday for more than 30 years, Frances Goodrich Harpst packed up the Meals on Wheels van for Coronado Hospital and motored the tree-lined streets, delivering meals to her homebound neighbors. What those recipients didn’t know was that their steadfast Fran, fiercely loyal to the community she so loved, actually founded the Meals on Wheels program for Coronado, Calif., and bought the van that she and the other volunteers drove.

In fact, Harpst was the silent momentum behind countless good works in Coronado. There will never be a full accounting of the lives she touched. She certainly didn’t keep track, and her philanthropic work was almost exclusively anonymous, so the people whose lives unexpectedly changed course never knew that she was the force behind their good fortune. That was precisely how she wanted it.

“She never wanted the notoriety,” says the Rev. Michael Murphy, pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Harpst’s parish in Coronado. “I think that for her it was an offering and she didn’t want to take anything away from giving glory to God.”

“If anyone were to say to her, ‘I heard you donated so-and-so,’ she would shut you down so quickly and so wittily that you wouldn’t know what just happened to you,” says Sara Gilliland, Harpst’s granddaughter. “It was a way for her to live under the radar. She was a woman who lived a simple life.”

Harpst passed away peacefully in her home on April 7, 2010, at age 83. She left a list of gifts that reflected her love for Coronado, for the island’s humanitarian concerns and for her faith. USD received a gift of more than $3 million, which it used to endow the newly renamed Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture and to support student scholarships at USD. The bequest advances the work of the center in encouraging open dialogue about Catholicity on campus and in the local community.

A 50-year resident of Coronado, Harpst discovered the quaint island community in her youth, when her family would summer at the Hotel Del Coronado every year. Harpst and her daughter, Lynne, settled permanently in Coronado after her marriage ended, and she quickly got to work, serving on Coronado Hospital’s boards and in the auxiliary program. Not content to limit her contributions to board meetings and bottom lines, she reached out directly through programs like Meals on Wheels.

“She saw the need, she was there to help out, and she did it very quietly,” says Harriet Sangrey, manager of patient/administrative relations at the hospital. “There are not many individuals who live their lives the way she did. She left a great legacy of volunteer work.”

Still looking for fulfillment early in her new life in Coronado, Harpst converted to Catholicism and joined the Sacred Heart parish, where she served everywhere from the Finance Council to the Altar Society. For decades, she organized the children’s Mass every Christmas Eve, and she ran the First Communion and baptism registry, filling her dining table with generations of sacrament paperwork.

Harpst was not only industrious, but she knew exactly what she wanted and communicated that very clearly.

“She was to-the-point,” Gilliland says. “If you got her, you were her confidante and colleague because you didn’t take offense to her straightforwardness. That is how she got so much done and made sure everything was being run in tiptop shape.”

Harpst was as thoughtful in her giving as she was perceptive at finding the needs around her. Seeing that a fellow parishioner in frail health was having trouble keeping up her home’s exterior, Harpst anonymously arranged for her gardener to maintain it. When the parish hall needed refurbishing, not only did she help pay for the work, but she was there pitching in.

A longtime supporter of the University of San Diego, Harpst was a former member of USD’s board of trustees and helped fund a number of efforts, including the annual Monsignor Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology. And she is credited with putting “many, many” young people through school at USD.

Through it all, Harpst lived a simple life. She saw no need to complicate her world with microwave ovens, DVD players or computers, and her rotary phone served her just fine. She was passionate about her friends and family — which includes her daughter, three granddaughters and five great-grandchildren — the church and peaceful pursuits such as gardening. Harpst would joke with friends about the car she drove.

“I think her car was older than mine,” says a friend from Sacred Heart, who, much like Harpst, preferred to remain anonymous. “We used to laugh about who had the worst looking clunker in town.”

An award-winning equestrian, Harpst’s lifelong love for animals led to her continued support of the San Diego Humane Society, Horsemanship for the Handicapped and the Coronado Veterinary Hospital. She donated one of her homes to the Pacific Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), which was able to use the proceeds from the sale of the house to help build a new facility.

In her lifetime, Harpst gave selflessly and abundantly. To her family, Harpst exemplified the truest form of philanthropy — one that can only come from the heart.

“To me, she wasn’t this person who donated considerable amounts of money,” says Gilliland. “She was my grandma who was involved in the church and the hospital and other things. She taught me that you are a doer, not just an overseer. It’s easy to be wealthy and to donate money, but not everyone is going to go clean out the sacristy. That’s who she was to me.” — Trisha J. Ratledge