Sister Barbara Doherty
Years in the Congregation: 56 years
Little did Barbara Doherty know she was etching the beginning of a career path when she arranged those chairs into a temporary classroom at her grandmother’s home each Sunday. She was the oldest grandchild in the family, and she would gather her cousins together to teach them.
“I don’t know what I tried to teach them,” she said, laughing. “But I made them come to my school each Sunday.”
Years later, Barbara became Sister Barbara Doherty when she joined the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She followed that path of providing education to young people while becoming a renowned educator, serving as president of Saint Mary-of the-Woods College (1984-1998) and as director of the Institute of Religious Formation at Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago. And she was only a couple of days away from traveling to China, where women and men religious aren’t always welcome, to teach conversational English at a university. But that’s when the bad news came.
In 2004, the Congregation planned a Mission to Asia summer gathering, partly as a tribute to the long-standing mission there, partly for educational benefits for the sisters, and partly to recommit the Congregation to service there. The Sisters of Providence established a mission in China in 1920. They were the first Congregation of Religious women from the United States to do so.
The Congregation’s Mission to China study group met during the summer of 2006 and decided there is still a strong need for the Congregation’s continued presence there.
Sister Barbara wanted to become part of that presence, but she could not go as “sister.” She had to be Barbara Doherty.
She wrote letters to a friend in China, and she contacted the Maryknoll sisters and a priest in Hong Kong to help pave the way.
“Although they knew I was old, they also knew that I was in my wits and I had very fine credentials. They finally came upon a university in Fuzhou. They were ready to hire me. They had prepared an apartment for me. They sent me information about what I had to do,” Sister Barbara said.
“I had all the physical examinations I needed. I had all the shots. I was all ready. I was thinking about the weather and what did I need to have there. I moved out of the place where I lived in Chicago and everything was gone except the two suitcases and carry-on bags,” she continued.
“We had going-away parties and it was a grand time. I was anxious and happy to go. Then, with one e-mail message, the government said to the college I would not be accepted because I was too old. And that was the end. There was no way to ask them to change their minds. Just in a flash, it was finished,” Sister Barbara said.
However deeply the disappointment penetrated, perhaps Providence was intervening. Not long after that rejection from the Chinese government in early 2007, Sister Barbara learned of a ministry opening at the motherhouse at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. The Congregation was looking for someone to serve as coordinator of the Office of the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.
“At that time, I was looking for a job where I didn’t have to have 17 to 19 balls in the air all at one time. I thought, well, I really would like that ministry. I applied and I was accepted. So, I am very happy,” Sister Barbara said. “I love learning about Saint Mother Theodore. I have made millions of notes about things she said.”
Her new ministry allows her to continue her dedication to education. Instead of a classroom, it will be by sharing printed materials, giving presentations, serving on a committee challenged with creating a permanent shrine for Saint Mother Theodore and welcoming visitors to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
“I’m learning more about Saint Mother Theodore than I ever knew or understood before, although I read all these things years and years ago. Now, to read them again and understand them differently is a whole new world for
me. It makes me feel very close to her and I’m very happy about that,” Sister Barbara said.
The shrine planning committee has been meeting, but no firm plans have been announced yet. Even in that process, her teaching background is present.
“I know it has to be a shrine that enables children to learn about Saint Mother Theodore easily. If children come and they learn something they can love for the rest of their lives about Mother Theodore, whatever it is, they won’t forget her. That’s what is good about helping the children know who she is. All of the rest of the people need to hear something, see something, learn something that they can take away as well. She is a saint of the people,” she said. “I feel like I am on the brink of hundreds of new possibilities and I’m not even sure what they are yet. We have a lot of people with wonderful ideas and we have to consolidate them and think them through.”
Sister Barbara also has been part of several discernment retreat weekends, helping women consider some of their own new possibilities.
“If a woman came to me and said, ‘I’m interested in the Sisters of Providence, tell me about them,’ yes, I would tell her a whole lot about us. I would tell her what I think about the Sisters of Providence. I think we’re the best ones in the whole world because our name is a magnificent name. Providence is what we are all about in this world and we work with all kinds of ministries, given the talents of many sisters. We work hard and we stick together. We’ve always
had a lot of gumption as a community,” Sister Barbara said.
She also is well-tuned to the Congregation’s roots.
“I have a place in my room called my prayer chair. It’s a rocking chair that looks out at the grounds. These woods have made us who we are. These woods have meaning. That Mother Theodore came to a deep, dense forest is a magnificent legacy for us. In that whole situation, she had to create a religious Congregation and a mission. And she did it,” she said.
Sister Barbara grew up in Chicago. Leaving her “play school” behind, she headed for Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College where she received bachelor’s degrees in Latin, English and history. She received a master’s degree in sacred doctrine from St. Mary’s College (South Bend, Ind.), a doctorate in theology from Fordham University and an honorary doctor of letters degree from Indiana State University, and another from Dominican University. Aside from the educational focus, she also served as co-provincial and director of Christian development for St. Joseph Province in Park Ridge, Ill., and as an instructor in the formation program and mistress of postulants at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She knew at an early age that she wanted to be a Sister of Providence.
“When I was 7 years old, my favorite aunt entered the Sisters of Providence. I decided I wanted to be Sister of Providence, too. Everything I have done, I have always loved and cared for. Being a Sister of Providence has been a great life. I suspect it’s because when you give your life over to something, you have a pathway that has opened itself to you. You know you can run away from it, but still there is a Mystery that summons you. There is a power of grace that holds you, keeps you steady, and constantly surrounds you with love,” she said.
vacation spot: woods, water, quiet, peace with a good friend
movies: bringing movies home to watch
recreation: good conversation over a meal
hobby: cooking new recipes
book: Shape of a Year by Jean Hersey (my first nature reading)
sport: baseball (Chicago White Sox)
animal: mountain goat
holiday: Thanksgiving through Christmas
dessert: dark chocolate anything, frozen yogurt
opera star: Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavoratti, Placido Domingo
sport: roller skating
course in school: theology, ecology