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Sister Barbara Doherty: A Sister of Providence icon living with dementia

Sister Barbara Doherty, right, enjoys lunch in Providence Hall dining room with, from left,
Sister Rosemary Nudd and Maren Van Cleave, a 2016-17 White Violet Center intern.

Sister Barbara Doherty. An author, a scholar, a theologian. A leader, a lecturer, a world-traveler.

Women at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods-College (SMWC) from 1984 to 1998, when Sister Barbara was president, remember even more.

They remember a president who really got to know them. More than one mentioned how she knew them by name the first time they met. They remember Sister Barbara as a regular person. Warm and kind and humorous. A person who kept a drawer of candy in her office for children of student mothers.

“She genuinely cared about each person she met. She will forever be one of my favorite people,” says Lori Morgan, a 1999 graduate of SMWC.

So many people hold so many great memories of Sister Barbara. Yet for Sister Barbara memory is the challenge.

In 2010 Sister Barbara was diagnosed with dementia of the Alzheimer’s and vascular types. It has continued to progress. At times she doesn’t remember who she is, let alone the people she meets. She also has very poor eyesight.

Living with dementia

Sister Barbara lives in Providence Hall at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. A home-health aide accompanies her 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Sisters of Providence, with the help of the donor-funded HOME (Helping Ourselves Meaningfully Engage) initiative, have worked to learn best practices for dementia care. Sisters and staff members live out dementia care differently than in traditional nursing home, changing vocabulary and supporting sisters to remain who they are while living with dementia.

Sister Barbara welcomes new Sister of Providence postulant Jessica Vitente in 2018.

Angela Hetterscheidt, one of Sister Barbara’s care partners, has worked full-time with Sister Barbara for more than a year. She says she heard that at first Sister Barbara did not like having an aide. “She’s very independent.”

But Sister Barbara has come to look forward to engaging with those who accompany her. They help assure her that she is not alone and doesn’t need to fear getting lost.

‘Honey, if you weren’t here, I don’t know what I would do,’ she sometimes tells me,” says Erica Jackson, another of her care partners who is with her 30 hours a week. Other times Sister Barbara shows she’s “in charge,” telling her care partners how things are done.

“Some days she knows a lot and will remember my name and who I am. She tells me we’re good friends. She might lie down for a little bit and take a nap and wake up 15 minutes later and she doesn’t know who she is,” said Angela.

Living with zest

As with all persons living with dementia, Barbara is the person she has always been. She still brings warmth and joy to those around her.

Sister Barbara loves to be out walking around. She loves music and dancing. She loves to visit with everyone she sees. She’ll give people a hug, a kiss on the hand, tell them they look nice, say, “I like ya!”

Sister Barbara enjoys a dancing activity with Sister Mary Lou Ruck.

Providence Associate Ezra Kyle Meadors has a special relationship with Sister Barbara. Many years ago, he attended theological lectures she gave in Chicago.

“Barbara opened my mind to the possibility of seeing God differently than I had ever dreamed possible. Without Barbara, I don’t think I would have a relationship with God today,” he said.

Ezra has made special effort to visit and spend time with Sister Barbara in recent years, especially while he served as an intern at White Violet Center for Eco-Justice in 2016-17.

“Barbara today is still an amazing teacher if people take the time to learn from her. I ate dinner with her almost every day during the year I was at White Violet. I would always ask how she was doing that day. Her answer was always the same, ‘I’m happy!’ Barbara still has the zest for life.

“She also isn’t in denial with what’s happening to her. Barbara acknowledges that she can’t remember a lot of things. She usually follows that up with ‘But I’m not sitting around here crying about it. Well, there you have it.’ She really is the embodiment of acceptance to me,” Ezra said.

“She has given her entire life to all of us. Barbara has been Providence to so many of us, and now we have the opportunity to be Providence to her,” he says.

Bringing happiness

Her care partner Angela says Sister Barbara continues to stand out.

“She’s a remarkable woman. I have never worked with a person living with dementia who can remember what I tell her like she does.”

Providence Associate Ezra Kyle Meadors with his mentor and friend Sister Barbara in 2016.

“I think she has a good life. She has a lot of people who love her. All her care partners think the world of her. Her SP sisters and biological sisters care about her. She has a good support system,” Angela said.

Sister Kay Manley, who has lived near Sister Barbara in Providence Hall for two years, remembers Sister Barbara as an extremely capable, intelligent person. She had been her teacher, a mentor, a leader in the Congregation.

Today, “She has good days and she has bad days. Some days she chats and other days she is crabby and she’s difficult. She doesn’t want anything to do with anybody. It’s hard. This is the Barbara who taught me all about Providence. Here she is not able to remember exactly who I am.

Sister Barbara continues to bring great things to the world.

“She brings happiness. People love to see her,” says her care partner Angela. “I’m so thankful I get to be with Sister Barbara. I love her.”

(Originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of HOPE magazine.)

Sister Barbara busts out her moves last year at the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College Sister “Prom”

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Amy Miranda

Amy Miranda is a Providence Associate of the Sisters of Providence and a staff member in their Mission Advancement office. Amy is a 1998 graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She currently manages the SP publication HOPE and works on marketing support for Providence Associates, new membership and Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

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3 Comments

  1. Judy Curtin on June 17, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    Sister Vincent Ferrer-aka-Sister Barbara was also an awesome teacher to the Class or ‘69 when we were a Freshmen. I remain grateful!

  2. Mary Coleman on June 18, 2020 at 10:05 am

    Loved reading this article about Sister Barbara and seeing her dancing. It really warmed my heart to see she is coping well with her illness and that she has wonderful support. I met her after I graduated and she was so engaging. She was College President at the time and we met for a short time in her office. Every time I saw her after that first meeting she always remembered my name and greeted me with enthusiasm. She is really just another Sister of Providence gem, I am so blessed to know.

  3. Mary Montgomery on June 21, 2020 at 2:38 pm

    A wonderful article and dance video of Sister Barbara! She directed my/our 30 day retreat before final vows in 1977. What a gifted woman of Providence! 💖

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