It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Eileen Harrop: Teacher, consultant, prison governor... and now priest

Mrs Eileen Harrop has had jobs as a teacher, consultant, prison governor... and now, priest

After working in a prison where all prisoners were on life sentence, Eileen Harrop-Chew went on to become the first Chinese woman in South East Asia to be ordained as a priest in England.
Mrs Harrop with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (right) and Bishop of Dover Trevor Willmott.
Mrs Harrop with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (right) and Bishop of Dover Trevor Willmott. PHOTO: COURTESY OF EILEEN HARROP

Mrs Eileen Harrop is the vicar of Gainford, the rector of Winston and an associate minister in Bishop Auckland. The first two are quaint villages, and the third, a picturesque market town, in north-east England.

This may not sound unusual in a country where women are ordained, except that Mrs Harrop is a Chinese woman from Singapore, an alumna of Methodist Girls' School (MGS) and National Junior College (NJC).

What makes Mrs Harrop - whose maiden name is Chew - even more intriguing is her background. Before becoming a priest four years ago, she was, at different times, a teacher, globetrotting management consultant, entrepreneur as well as governor of a maximum-security prison.

While she admits it is bizarre, the 57-year-old also believes her career trajectory has been shaped by divine guidance.

Blessed with a kindly demeanour and a soothing voice, she boasts an illustrious ancestry of doctors, entrepreneurs and Christian pioneers.

One of four children of doctor parents, she has an identical twin sister. Her father is Dr Chew Chin Hin, the only local doctor conferred the Mastership in the American College of Physicians for his contribution to medicine in Singapore.

Mrs Eileen Harrop, maiden name Chew, grew up in Singapore and started out as a teacher at ACS before becoming a management consultant and prison governor overseas. She also became the first Chinese woman from South-east Asia to be ordained as a priest in Britain.  ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN


You think everyone who is a lifer must have such heinous lives. You think they are such terrible people. But many of them were born in difficult circumstances, and came from families broken not necessarily by poverty... If I didn't have the blessings and the privilege, might I have been exploited for the worst of my character? Might I have ended up in a bad way? ''

MRS EILEEN HARROP, on her experiences as governor of a maximum-security prison.

"My paternal grandfather Benjamin Chew was also a doctor, he was the first to administer penicillin in Singapore and helped to found Sata," she says, referring to the Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association.

Her childhood, she says, was sheltered and privileged; her early years were spent in her grandparents' sprawling home fronting the sea in St Patrick's Road in the East Coast.

Although her recollections of him are vague, one person who left a big impact on her life is her great-grandfather Oh Ghee Choo.

"He and his family escaped from China by boat but he was orphaned when his whole family perished in the sea. Someone grabbed his pigtail and fished him out of the water," she says.

Then seven or eight years old, Mr Oh lived on the streets and made a living selling bouquets made of flowers discarded by a florist. He caught the attention of community leader Song Hoot Kiam - Hoot Kiam Road in River Valley is named after him - who took him in and raised him as his own.

"My great-grandfather made good and was able to start a family which also made good and that's why I'm here. My family has been successful but they wouldn't have what they had in life if not for the Song family," says Mrs Harrop, who was recently in town to celebrate her parents' diamond wedding anniversary.

Mrs Harrop with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (right) and Bishop of Dover Trevor Willmott. PHOTO: COURTESY OF EILEEN HARROP

"That's why my understanding is very different from that of a lot of people when they talk about refugees," she adds.

She attended MGS, where she and her twin were put in different classes, an experience they initially found traumatic.

"My sister is science-orientated, she would look at things and figure out how they operate. I'm the more artistic type, and a thinker. But I was sporty and represented the school in sprints, hurdles and the long jump," she says.

The Science student at National Junior College experienced her first major setback when she failed her A levels.

Mrs Harrop (last row, second from left) with parishioners and colleagues in the village hall of St Michael's, a suburb in Kent. PHOTO: COURTESY OF STUART KIRK

"Psychologically and mentally, I was broken. I probably had a nervous breakdown. But I chose to return to NJC for another year although it was a huge shame to overcome," says Mrs Harrop, who was secretary of the Students' Council.

She decided to switch to Arts, and opted for a whole new set of subjects, including English Literature.

"I passed. It felt good, and I had offers from many universities."

She settled on Keele University in the United Kingdom because it offered a degree with a concurrent teaching qualification.

Her subject combination, by her own admission, was "strange". Although she initially set out to study English Literature, she ended up majoring in Anglo-Saxon Studies, Old Norse and Old Icelandic.

She also took philosophy, astronomy and music and attended classes in geology as well as nuclear physics.

Upon her return to Singapore in the early 1980s, she became a teacher at Anglo-Chinese School, teaching "everything except Maths and Science".

"I conducted music lessons in the school hall with four classes at the same time... I also helped the students stage a Star Trek musical."

After two years, she returned to the UK and to Keele to get her master's in International Diplomacy. By then, she had married fellow educator Brian Harrop, who she met in her final year as an undergraduate.

In 1989, she returned to Singapore with her husband. A friend told her a hospital was looking for "someone who had educational expertise but also the right personality for corporate work".

She went for it, and bagged the position of head of education and training at Mount Elizabeth and East Shore (now known as Parkway East) hospitals.

"It was time to do something new and I wanted to explore," says Mrs Harrop, who did so well that she became director for education and corporate services. "I have a curiosity for lots of things, how the world works, what people think."

Three years later, she moved to Singapore General Hospital as an administrator, overseeing human resources, information technology, communications and public relations.

It did not take long before a management consultancy, Organisation Dynamics Incorporated (ODI), got her on board as a consultant.

For the next few years, Mrs Harrop - who acquired her skills on the job and from executive management programmes conducted by the likes of the London School of Economics - travelled extensively, advising companies on organisational change.

"I encountered prejudice on only two occasions and that's saying a lot when I had exposure to high-level corporate work," she lets on.

On one occasion, a manager in a foreign company said in front of his colleagues: "She's our consultant? But she's a Singapore girl and the only Singapore girls I know are from that wonderful airline."

In 1996, she became an expatriate when ODI wanted her to be in its UK headquarters.

"They said they couldn't call themselves a leading global organisation if they didn't have a high-level Asian staff member in the UK," she says.

When ODI got sold, she struck out on her own and set up Eileen Harrop Unlimited in 1998 from her home in Oxfordshire. Her husband was then a lecturer at Greenwich University.

One of her clients was Cargolux, a small cargo airline headquartered in Luxembourg with a mixed fleet serving a limited portfolio of customers.

"I was engaged as an  independent organisation change and quality consultant to advise the board strategically and organisationally. Within five years of completing the transformation, they had  become the largest cargo airline in Europe with an extensive single-type Boeing 747 fleet with a global portfolio," says Mrs Harrop, who spent several days every week in Luxembourg.

By this time, she had become a well-known figure in the Oxfordshire community. A Chinese woman in their midst was rare enough, let alone a high-flying professional one.

The villagers enlisted her help when they wanted to save their local pub, so, naturally, they turned to her too when their priest - who had a drinking problem - fell foul of the law and was suspended.

The church wardens persuaded her to become a lay minister, and later broached the subject of ordainment.

She decided that she needed to better discern if she was hearing a divine call so she and her husband moved to Kent.

The frequent travelling and other professional demands were starting to wear her down so she closed her business in 2007 and started looking for a less strenuous job.

Her job-hunting attempts came to naught.

"They said I was overqualified," she says with a grimace.

Out of the blue, she received an e-mail one day from a job site suggesting that she apply for the post of governor of a high-security prison in Leicestershire.

"I thought it was a joke," she says.

It was not. And that was how she became the governor of the male prison, where all the inmates were on life sentences.

"I was responsible for all staff and systems, quality and performance and regime, how officers organise the life of the prisoners," says Mrs Harrop, who lived in a small cottage she bought in Leicestershire and went home to Kent during the weekends.

The job changed her outlook.

"You think everyone who is a lifer must have such heinous lives. You think they are such terrible people. But many of them were born in difficult circumstances, and came from families broken not necessarily by poverty... If I didn't have the blessings and the privilege, might I have been exploited for the worst of my character? Might I have ended up in a bad way?" she says, adding that one of her roles was to inculcate compassion in her staff for the prison's inmates. Many of them, she says, often broke down when talking to her about their jobs.

Two years later, she left the prison to become a consultant to the local government.

"Someone I was working with in the local government was a consultant to the national government at Westminister and that was how I ended up doing up a workshop for MPs, looking at their personalities and vision and helping them see how all that fitted in with their work."

By then, she had decided ordained life was indeed her calling.

Church officials were initially unsure if she would make a suitable parish priest.

"They said: 'You're not from this country, what do you know of people living in the parish? Sure, some of them love you, but what if we needed to deploy you to other places in England?'"

In the end, however, the Bishop's advisers gave her the green light. Instead of three years, she took just two to complete her degree in theology at Cambridge University.

During this time, she had three ministry attachments, including one at the Holy Trinity Church in Vancouver.

In 2012, she was ordained by the Archbishop of Canterbury, becoming the first Chinese woman from South-east Asia to serve as a church minister. In Hong Kong, women have been ordained as priests for several decades.

Because of her corporate and entrepreneurial background, Mrs Harrop also broke new ground when she was recently designated the "entrepreneur priest" for Durham, assigned to help millionaire philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer on several projects to revitalise the historic city in north-eastern England. These plans include a faith museum, a Christian heritage hub and a gallery.

What she earns now is modest, less than 10 per cent of what she used to rake in as a corporate high-flyer.

Life is no bed of roses. She admits to having experienced some cultural ostracisation and envy from some of her colleagues.

"Some of them have never experienced working life outside the church, or had only one career. I think there's fear that they would not know what to do if I left."

But her parishioners have never discriminated against her.

It helps, she says, that she grew up in multicultural and multifaith Singapore. Her extended family, she says, include Buddhists and Peranakans and those who subscribe to Confucianist values.

"It's a blessing, having grown up with that and understanding that it works. There is prejudice and it's not perfect but you can care about one another, laugh with each other."

With a twinkle in her eye, she adds: "They know I'm an asset. And I am because I am Singaporean."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 07, 2016, with the headline 'A S'porean's vicar-ious achievement'. Print Edition | Subscribe