Sister Barbara Doherty (formerly Sister Vincent Ferrer)
Barbara Ann Doherty was born in Chicago to Martin and Margaret Noe Doherty on December 2, 1931.
She attended St. Mel Elementary School in Chicago and Ascension School in Oak Park. She was a Provite, always proud to be an alumna of Providence High School in the class of 1949.
Two years later, on Feb. 2, 1951, she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence. She received the religious name Sister Vincent Ferrer, a renowned preacher and professor of theology in the 14th century, said Sister Denise Wilkinson in her commentary for Sister Barbara Doherty, formerly Sister Vincent Ferrer, who passed away on Monday, August 17, 2020, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 88 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 69 years.
Sister Denise continued: She pronounced both her first and perpetual vows on August 15, in 1953 and 1958, respectively.
Barbara earned degrees from three institutions: Her Bachelor of Arts degree in Latin from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College; her Master of Arts degree in Sacred Scripture from St. Mary’s, South Bend; and her Doctorate in Theology from Fordham University. She also received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Indiana State University in 1990, the year of the Congregation’s Sesquicentennial.
Her many degrees, coupled with her innate intelligence and natural giftedness as a teacher colored her entire ministerial life. It played itself out as a junior high teacher for seven years and as high school teacher for two years. As SP director of postulants for two years, she taught classes in the formation program.
She taught theology courses in the residence program at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College for three years, as well as in the Master of Arts in Pastoral Theology program for many years. She also taught at Fordham University.
Barbara held several administrative posts. She served as Co-Provincial for St. Joseph Province in the Chicago area for eight years and, after a sabbatical in Ireland, served as President of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College for 14 years. Following that, she was director of the Institute of Religious Formation at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago for eight years and then accepted the position of Coordinator of the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin for three years, teaching others about our beloved saint.
Her last teaching role lasted about 10 years and involved modeling for her sisters and others what it was like to live with stages of dementia. She remained her determined and opinionated and directive self as she insisted on doing what she could for herself. Somehow, she was able to stay positive and cheerful despite her decline. She lifted spirits with her genuine smile. When asked about her day, she would reply, “It was swell.” And to those she had known for a long time and those she just met, that same greeting prevailed: “You’re swell,” or “You’re a swellie!”
All of this is a quick sketch, a brief outline of Barbara’s life.
But what if we looked at Barbara’s life in terms of the Gospel reading just proclaimed?
If we choose to see Barbara Doherty in the image of the parable, the sower would have sown not one kind of seed but a mixed variety.
What kind of seeds were sown and prospered on the good soil of Barbara’s life?
There’s the zinnia part of Barbara – funny, bold, colorful. Only a zinnia, and a novice zinnia at that, would stand up in the middle of a strawberry picking session under the hot sun and call out to her band members, “How would you girls like a nice cold beer?”
In a chain of texts, several Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College alums recalled some of Barbara’s other zinnia moments. These messages included the following.
Ever the frugal shopper, Barbara got all her clothes either out of what she called the “mission barrel” or resale shops. She seemed to have a liking for Pendleton suits. She would buy these suits no matter what the size; bring them to a student who then remade them to fit BD – as the college students called her.
When having to travel by car, Barbara would hire a student as a driver. Barbara would sit in the back seat working; her expectations of the student were simple – drive carefully and speak only if spoken to.
These alums recalled some of Barbara’s favorite words and phrases: swell, grand, hooray, lollygagging, willy-nilly, kiddo, full of baloney, speak up.
What is Barbara were an impatiens plant? Listen to these comments made to many a novice, student, attendee at her workshops. You may sense some impatience on her part.
If you say you’re bored, then you’re a boring person. There’s always something to read, something to learn, someone to talk with. If you’re bored, you’re boring.
Don’t be a shrinking violet.
Beware of your own iron clad antipathies. Everyone has them. You do, too.
If you know what you want to do, do it. Stop lollygagging around.
The white violet would be a seed we’d find in the package. This wild flower symbolized Mother Theodore’s hopes for the students of St. Mary’s Academy, and remains a symbol of the Sisters of Providence ongoing commitment to education. Virtus cum Scientia – virtue with knowledge or virtue and knowledge united.
Her academic achievements were the fruit of an extraordinary intelligence and her willingness to work hard for what she wanted to achieve. As Barbara said of herself, “I worked like a dog.”
The final step in being awarded her master’s degree was her research paper entitled, “The Place of Scripture in the Formation of Religious Women.” This paper certainly came to life as she taught women and men religious in a variety of settings.
The title of her dissertation was The Path to Liberation: Sankara, Metaphysician, Mystic or Teacher. I had to Google the identity of Sankara. I leave it to you to do the same. Suffice it to say, Sankara was a man whose life’s work was rooted in his faith and his strong sense of justice – just like Barbara’s life.
Perhaps it is good for us to know that Barbara sometimes doubted her ability to succeed in an academic effort. In a touching series of letters, Barbara confided to Sister Mary Joan, then Director of Education, that she worried about passing the exams of the two required languages needed to earn her Ph.D. – German and French. Doctoral candidates had to demonstrate both written and spoken facility in each language. Barbara did pass the exams but not without a great deal of anxiety.
But, being a wildflower and a white violet flower to boot, Barbara celebrated passing her required language exams, by enthusiastically enrolling in an elective language course. The language? Sanskrit.
Could we speak of Barbara without acknowledging that she was a sunflower as well? As an amateur gardener, I’ve planted sunflower seeds and have learned their stalks are very thick and sturdy; their roots very deep. They attract butterflies, bees, humming birds and gold finches.
Sunflowers follow the light all day long. “Plant in full sunlight” the seed package advises. Like these flowers, Barbara consistently and whole-heartedly turned to the bright and steady light of Providence.
She said of herself: “Providence is at the center of my being. I live it. I know I am a different sort of human; but this is who I am.”
Perhaps because she lived Providence, she was chosen to be a member of a General Chapter mandated committee tasked with reviewing and revising the Constitutions of the Sisters of Providence. Sister Mary Roger Madden was also a committee member.
With other committee members, these two brilliant and articulate women helped create a document expressing the very heart of who we are as Sisters of Providence. We owe these women our continuing gratitude – gratitude for giving us a living document, a living expression of how we aspire to live Providence.
Living Providence compelled her to be one of the founding sisters of Women of Providence in Collaboration – a group of Canadian and U.S. women religious whose congregations bear the name of Providence. The member congregations began to and still continue to develop the theology and spirituality of God as Providence.
Lastly, let’s imagine Barbara as a chrysanthemum. In the language of flowers, chrysanthemums symbolize fidelity, optimism, joy and long life, honest or lasting support, continual loyalty to someone or something – end of life stories.
We know from first-hand experience Barbara’s optimism and joy, and we give thanks for her long life.
Dear family members of Barbara, you each know you had her lasting support, her loving loyalty. Her 1984 book, Make Yourself An Ark, bears this dedication: This book is dedicated to my beloved siblings, Patsy and Mary. It is also given to the people they brought to our family: Ed and Jim, Martin, Sheila, Eddie, Joe, Meg and Jamie.”
In the 36 years since Barbara wrote that dedication, she warmly welcomed more and more of you into her cherished family. She loved you very much – as she was so loved by all of you. How she relished celebrating any and all family occasions with “my clan” – as she referred to you. Rejoice in her continuing loving presence with you.
Sister Nancy Nolan and Chuck Fisher, her good friends, you received from Barbara and returned to her, years of the kind of steadfast love that marks all genuine friendships. What a gift – a gift not bound by time.
All of us and anyone who knew Barbara received the gift of her joy, a joy rooted in the God of Providence. As we know, joy and faith are gifts to keep passing on. Let’s do it.
We also know Barbara’s end of life story – how she lived her life as a person with dementia. Let me end with two lovely stories – stories that speak to the quality of Barbara’s presence in her final days.
Our Coordinator of Clinical Care, Beth Collins, relayed this moment that occurred sometime in the last two months of Barbara’s life. Barbara’s care giver was engaged in a very serious and upsetting phone call. When she hung up, she said to Barbara, “Some people just don’t appreciate all that you do for them.” Without missing a beat, Barbara responded, “You need to remember where people are – not where you need them to be.”
Shortly before Barbara’s death, her younger sister Mary visited with her.
Mary assured Barbara that she would take care of their sister Patsy. Barbara’s cloudy eyes became very clear when Mary made that promise. Mary and Barbara were holding hands. Just then, Beth Collins came in. Barbara took Beth’s hand and placed it in Mary’s. Mary felt as if Barbara was saying: “All of you come together and stay together.”
Five times during that same visit, Mary encouraged Barbara, “Go toward the light. Let go. Go toward the light.” Each time Mary said that, Barbara sat straight up in bed – seemingly going toward the light of Providence – that light that had nurtured and sustained her throughout her life.
Barbara, thank you for giving us your bold, colorful, joyful, optimistic, determined self.
Thank you, Barbara. Help us keep on the good path, the one marked out for us. We promise not to lollygag around but to continue to grow in the word of God we hear and understand.
Funeral services for Sister Barbara took place on Wednesday, August 26, 2020, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.
A Virtual Wake took place at 10:30 a.m., followed by Funeral Outside Mass at 11 a.m.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Barbara in the comment section below.
Memorial contributions may be made in Sister Barbara’s honor to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Sister Barbara Doherty (formerly Sister Vincent Ferrer)
In Indiana: Teacher, St. Paul, Sellersburg (1953-56); Teacher, St. Agnes Academy, Indianapolis (1960-62); Teacher Formation Program/Mistress of Postulants, Sisters of Providence (1963-65); Teacher, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (1965-67); Teacher, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (1971-73); Teacher, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (1974-75); President, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (1984-98); Coordinator, Office of the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2007-2010); Prayer, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2011-2020).
In Illinois: Teacher, Immaculate Conception, Chicago (1956-60); Co-Provincial/Director of Christian Development, St. Joseph Province, Park Ridge (1975-83); Director of the Institute of Religious Formation, Catholic Theological Union, Chicago (1999-2007).
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