Recently, my 18 year-old daughter, Lana, invited me to speak at a forum at her high school. Lana is a senior and is the only Latter-day Saint at Merion Mercy Academy in Philadelphia—an all-girls Catholic school with an enrollment of roughly 500 girls.
Following my speech, I asked Lana to take me by the classroom of Mr. Frederick Pratt, one of the school's most popular teachers, because I wanted to meet him. Frederick Pratt is on the religion faculty and was one of Lana's favorite teachers.
Mr. Pratt teaches five religion courses at Merion Mercy Academy: morality, social justice, life choices, church history and sacraments. Lana had him for sacraments and church history and she absolutely loved Mr. Pratt and his classes—so much so that she gave him a Book of Mormon, which she signed with her testimony. He was so appreciative of the gesture, though he confided in us that it's one of a dozen he's been given over the years by Mormon missionaries. He invited Lana to come into his sacraments class in a few weeks to discuss her Mormon faith, including media misconceptions and falsehoods about Mormons.
I had thanked him via email for that opportunity for Lana to discuss her faith with her peers in his religion class. I was impressed with his email response a few days later:
"As a fascinated admirer of the Mormon tradition, I am often upset by the misconception about the mainstream LDS church by most Americans - I am sure it makes for 'good television' but so much is fiction parading as fact - my invitation to Lana to speak about her faith is a small contribution to put an end to prejudicial words and maybe a life lesson that my students can take with them about differences between people and the need for not just tolerance, but respect, honor and acceptance. The wealth of this country is exponentially more in our diversity than even our GDP."
Enlightened? Yeah, I'd say so. But there's more to Mr. Frederic Pratt than meets the eye. Much more.
In January, following the Florida GOP debate, Mr. Pratt stopped Lana in the hallway and asked if she had watched the debate the previous evening.
"We did, Mr. Pratt," she said, "my parents had friends over and we all watched."
Then Pratt casually mentioned, "Did you know I'm related to Mitt Romney?"
"I'm actually related to Romney and Jon Huntsman," he said. "We all share a common ancestor."
Lana was intrigued, never mind she was running late for class. "Is it someone I would know?" she asked.
That's when Frederick Pratt dropped the bomb. "You ever heard of Parley Parker Pratt?"
It took Lana a moment to realize that the "P." must be for Parker. "You're related to Parley P. Pratt?!"
Frederick Pratt smiled. "And his brother Orson."
When Lana recounted for me her encounter with Mr. Pratt, I knew I had to meet him and take him one of my favorite books from our home library: "Life and Travels of Parley P. Pratt," Pratt's autobiography. I presented it to Mr. Pratt, wrote a few things inside the cover, signed and dated it, as the school photographer snapped a photo of us holding the book.
Frederick Pratt grew up in a devout Catholic family in New Jersey, aspiring to be in the ministry. However, after college, he took a job at MIT and moved to Cambridge, Mass to work in a program that promoted invention, science, engineering and entrepreneurship among young people. After two years at MIT, he pursued a job as an admissions counselor/recruiter at the Sloan School of Business MBA program at MIT. He was a finalist for the job but ultimately didn't get it, so he decided to pursue his childhood dream of entering the priesthood.
He moved to the Bronx in New York City where he worked at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Mid-town Manhattan, one of the busiest churches in the world. He went to Brazil, Bolivia and Peru where he learned to speak Spanish and studied South American culture. He returned to the States and took his vows and studied theology at Catholic University in Washington D.C. He spent two years in graduate studies in D.C., before he opted to take a leave of absence to return to the Philadelphia area. He took admissions counselors' jobs at local universities before landing at Merion Mercy Academy, where he realized his true love was teaching. It was also at Merion Mercy that he met Erin Simms, the pretty young Dean of Students, to whom he's been happily married for five years.
Frederick Pratt could not have been more gracious in receiving my gift. He spoke of his love for his Mormon heritage. "Pioneer blood runs through our veins, " Pratt told me. "I am very much aware of Orson and Parley Pratt and the fantastic stories that surround them and their families - their connection to the prophet (Joseph Smith) and the Quorum of the Twelve. When I was a freshman in high school my family traveled from New Jersey to Montana to Arizona and back home - it was a great vacation and an opportunity to visit Salt Lake. I was able to do a lot of research when I was there."
His research took him back to the brothers Orson and Parley, the early Mormon leaders, in the 1800s, and all the way back to brothers William and John Pratt who came from Hertfordshire, England in 1630, landing in Massachusetts before settling Hartford, Conn in 1633.
Though he teaches Catholic theology, Frederick Pratt is very knowledgeable about his Mormon forbearers. "If I recall from my studies of my family," he told me, "Orson was very instrumental in the promotion of genealogy in the Mormon Church as well as the codifying of the Book of Mormon into verse format. I know that his time as a missionary in the UK was an opportunity to dig even deeper into the Pratt family tree."
"It is essentially through my love of genealogy that I became aware of Orson, Parley and other Pratts that are also related to those first brothers who settled in New England from England. It seems to me that from the Mormon point of view, Pratt genealogy starts with Jared and Charity Dickenson Pratt (the parents of Parley and Orson). From my point of view, most Pratts in the United States are 'standing on the shoulders' of William and John for their courage to brave the Atlantic and come to this land we now call home. We must also remember the courage of their parents to allow their sons to follow their consciences and leave England."
Perhaps it's that strain of independence and courage of conscience in the Pratt DNA that compelled Frederick Pratt to invite my LDS daughter to discuss her faith in his Catholic school sacraments class.
Vai Sikahema is the Sports Director and Anchor for NBC10 Philadelphia and host of the "Vai & Gonzo Show" on ESPN Philadelphia Radio. He is a two-time All-Pro, two-time Emmy Award winner and was a member of BYU's 1984 National Championship team.
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