From troubled teen to sister in medicine: Sister Barbara Battista
When considering who might grow up to be a nun, you might not consider a troubled teenager kicked out of her Catholic high school her sophomore year.
Yet Sister Barbara Battista took that route and ended up a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (SP). Today, Sister Barbara has a successful career in the medical field in addition to being an SP.
Growing up as number six of seven kids in an average family in Indianapolis, young Barbara never imagined she would become part of a Catholic congregation of women.
“We were Catholic, but not overly devout,” she says. “You know, we went to church every Sunday, but that was pretty much it.”
As a teenager, Sister Barbara didn’t have a clear vision for her future. Her mother was a registered nurse and her father a pharmacist. “I always thought maybe I’d get into pharmaceutical studies or something like it since my parents were both in that field. It just seemed natural,” she said. She wasn’t particularly interested in having a family.
That was just it. “I didn’t know what my interests were,” she says. It wasn’t until she started college that she began to transform from a “wild child” into an ambitious young woman. Barbara decided she needed to get her life back on track. She attended Butler University for pharmacy.
Shortly after graduation, Barbara made her parents proud by landing a job in the pharmaceutical field, getting her own place, and living an independent and responsible life.
“My mom was always ahead of her time … she pushed the idea of women’s advocacy.” Sister Barbara’s mother had planted those seeds early in her life. So Barbara’s life-changing decisions that followed surprised her parents.
“I just noticed that something was missing,” Sister Barbara says. “I couldn’t tell what it was, just something.” After several years of neglecting her faith life, Barbara started attending church again at her home parish of St. Joan of Arc in Indianapolis. When her younger brother died unexpectedly, Sister Barbara’s life took a 180-degree turn.
“It made me realize how precious life is,” she says.
Her relationship with God began to transform and deepen. A couple years later Sister Marie (Marie Elvire) Wolf began inviting Barbara to consider joining the Sisters of Providence. After brushing it off several times, Barbara finally attended a Come and See weekend and ended up joining the Congregation.
“My parents were shocked,” Sister Barbara says. “It took mother a really long time to come around.”
Sister Barbara’s parents felt that joining a Congregation that was part of a church that “treats women so poorly” was against the morals that they had worked so hard to teach their children.
“My mom was truly a supporter of women’s advocacy and my dad always supported the idea of me being independent,” she says. “I guess they felt that my decision would jeopardize those opportunities.”
In her early exploration, Sister Barbara wondered how her skills and career would fit with the Congregation. “I thought, I don’t sing and I don’t teach. What can I do?”
However, she found that life as a Sister of Providence never hindered her career opportunities. In fact, she went on to continue her career as a pharmacist and has been able to participate in numerous medical mission trips around the world. Opportunities for outreach seemed to multiply after joining the Congregation. There came a point in her career where she felt she wanted to be more in touch with the people she served. So she went back to school and became a physician assistant.
In this field Sister Barbara has served clients at what was St. Ann’s Clinic in Terre Haute, a free clinic for people without other options that was run by the Sisters of Providence. Sister Barbara also spent time working as a physician assistant in a prenatal clinic that served underprivileged women. “I saw many women who had been dealing with abuse and really bad relationships,” she says. “These women had a lot of potential and they should have been able to have some dignity over their own bodies.” Helping to make a difference in these women’s lives was a fulfilling ministry for Sister Barbara.
She now works as a Physician Assistant at the Union Hospital Occupational Health Center in Terre Haute, Indiana.
“I have had a lot of great experiences,” she says.
Sister Barbara continues to be a staunch advocate for women’s rights. And she hasn’t lost her “go against the grain” attitude that caught many of her teachers and classmates off guard.
She has also been able to help people with medical needs all over the world — a dream that has fulfilled many of the voids in her life. It’s a way for her to live out God’s healing love for others.
Sister Barbara has settled into her life as a Sister of Providence — a life of peace and purpose lived as an advocate for women, health and spirituality.
(Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of HOPE magazine.)