Sister Barbara Zeller
Years in the Congregation: 42 years
Someday, I’d like to: sky dive
Sister Barbara Ann Zeller describes herself as innately shy. In her younger years, she said she was a loner. She used to have a penchant for running away from some of life’s pressures, particularly youthful peer pressure.
But her accomplishments and commitment to her ministries indicate otherwise. She is the director of Providence Self Sufficiency Ministries Inc., separately incorporated sponsored ministry of the Sisters of Providence that collaborates with local social-service agencies to provide need-based assistance: adult literacy/GED instruction; tutoring for school-age children; health care services, including a clinic and medication assistance programs; licensed group homes for foster children; family reunification and preservation; shelter and case management; independent living classes for youth in foster care; English as a Second Language, music and computer classes; counseling; information and referral services; apartments for people age 62 and older with limited incomes and a senior citizens’ center.
She dialogs across the table with community leaders and state government officials. She and her staff have secured more than $20 million in grants. She heads a full-time and part-time staff, in addition to some 300 volunteers who have helped more than 45,000 people with various aspects of their lives.
Shy? A loner? Quick to run?
“Traditionally, I always seemed to be running away from something. When I was a wee tot, I ran away from home. My grandmother lived next door. I packed a little bag and went to my grandmother’s house. I was constantly running away until high school when I really began to know who this person is. I just kept fighting all this peer pressure,” Sister Barbara said.
She attended a small Catholic school in Evansville in a newly created parish.“I was always the president of the mission, or the chick who crowned the Blessed Virgin,” she said.
Coincidentally, it was tradition for her school’s eighth grade girls to visit Saint Mary-of-the- Woods. Sister Barbara saw that field trip as a chance to escape the routine. The trip must have made an impression. She eventually enrolled in Providence Aspirancy at Saint Mary-of-the- Woods, a high school for girls.
As Providence would have it, a walk down a hallway provided Sister Barbara with the opportunity for change. Her very close high school friend, Sandy, was sobbing in her room. Sandy had just learned that her father had terminal cancer and she would need to leave.
“She was devastated with the news. Obviously, I knew who was sobbing. My first impulse was to walk on by. But something happened and I didn’t. I stopped and shared her tears. That day, sharing Sandy’s tears taught me to stay with the experience of the moments in life and not to run from them.”
Sister Barbara didn’t shy away when the opportunity came to join the Sisters of Providence.
“Once I got on these grounds, joining the Sisters of Providence was a soft sell. I embraced it and decided this is certainly what I wanted to do,” she said.
“I had a hard time in the novitiate. I was very much a renegade. I knew the campus very well. I was always doing odd things,” Sister Barbara said.
“A very intriguing thing happened. At the time I was in the novitiate, there were between 58 and 60 young women entering each year. There were about 150 of us who were postulants, or canonical novices or scholastic novices. We were on the cusp of the Second Vatican Council. Many of the senior sisters were very upset with the stuff the young nuns were doing,” Sister Barbara recalled.
“I was audacious enough to go to Mother Mary Pius [Regnier] (general superior, RIP) to say, ‘I really think you need to do something with the senior sisters. I would like very much to get a car and get the sisters interested in volunteering at the cancer society, doing RSVP, being foster grandparents.’ Well, she bought it,” Sister Barbara said.
So, Sister Barbara set up a small activity area called the Sunshine Room. She started with doing “fun things” with the senior sisters like taking them to play miniature golf or treating themselves to ice cream.
“It kind of took the heat off the young nuns, which was great,” Sister Barbara said.
Equally “great” was the beginning of her commitment to providing for others. She had been teaching at Precious Blood School in Jasper, Ind., only a short time when she was called by the Congregation’s leadership and asked to do a 13- week residential study program in gerontology at the University of Michigan. She later received a full scholarship to obtain her master’s degree in gerontology from North Texas State University.
After graduation she was asked to be director of gerontology for the Congregation. She created programs for sisters “from convent to convent, from province to province.” She also began presenting conferences at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for other congregations of sisters, priests and brothers.
Soon afterward, she led the effort to create a separately incorporated low-income housing project adjacent to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, then moved on to PSSM.
Ambition was instilled in her at an early age by her parents.
“Both were extremely gifted. My father had tremendous drive. I love challenges, mostly positive challenges,” she said. “Wasn’t it that ‘Mission Impossible’ dude who said ‘don’t you love to see a plan come together?’ I love that!”
Her father would come home from work in the evening, have dinner, then go out to build houses. Her mother did the interior decorating. They built 68 homes while her father had a full-time job. Even though she acts as CEO for three separate corporations under the highly successful PSSM umbrella, she said hands-on ministry is her first love. And her devotion to the senior sisters remains strong.
“I really do embrace that whole thing about a moment of Providence. It’s there. I revel in that. It makes me happy. I love good prayer. I love wonderful liturgy. I have felt courage. I have felt strength. The people who give me the most inspiration are the elders when I come back to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. It’s their sense of support that has carried me,” Sister Barbara said.
“People say to me that I am such a planner, and I’m not. I’m a risk-taker, but I calculate those risks. I think there are some women who have excellent business acumen and I imagine that they might see that as not compatible for religious life. It’s good for them to know that there is opportunity for that business thing to unfurl within the context of the Congregation and its mission and various ministries,” Sister Barbara said.
“I think if we had some more sisters who were smart businesswomen, they could open such an arena for the Sisters of Providence. Like the whole housing corporation. We could go throughout the country doing this kind of thing. You have to have somebody who has just a tad of business sense who can go into government agencies and negotiate for per diem rates, go seek licenses. I think we have awesome opportunities. I hate to see an opportunity go by. I hate to see a need unmet, and if you have the opportunity, why not do something about it?” Sister Barbara emphasized.
time of day: 9 a.m., Saturday
television program: M.A.S.H.
music style: pop country
zoo animal: polar bear
song: “You raise me up” by Josh Groban
If I weren’t an SP: I’d be a CEO of a major corporation.
vacation spot: Cool spring or summer day sitting on the deck of my home listening to music.
recreation: Spending time with the people I love and my canine friend.
sport: Tennis, I enjoyed playing it in my youth.
activity: Being with Mom and Dad on the farm.
hobby: walking, crewel embroidery
My best friend says: I don’t know how you do it.