Remembering Sister Barbara Doherty
“Be a lamp or a lifeboat or a ladder. Help someone’s soul to heal.”Rumi
I arrived at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in the fall of 2016 for a nine-month internship at White Violet Center for Eco-Justice. That first evening at supper, I sat down next to my friend Sister Barbara Doherty. Despite her living with dementia, she called me by name. She asked how long I would be at the Woods as she wanted to get a visit in before I had to leave. Prior to this, all my visits had been rushed as I was usually there as a Providence Associate to attend an Annual Meeting or the Providence Associate Spring Retreat. I told Barbara that I now lived at the Woods. The biggest smile came across her face and she said, “Do you really mean it?!”
Sister Barbara Doherty has been a lamp, a lifeboat and a ladder in my life at various times throughout the years. When I received the news that she had been anointed on July 25, I started to write down some of my most treasured memories of Barbara. For this remembrance, I choose to focus on my most recent memories with Barbara beginning with my White Violet internship.
During my nine months at White Violet, I had dinner and supper with Barbara every day — that’s well over 500 meals. We usually met in the hall at the same time, but, if I was late coming over from the farm, Barbara would be waiting in the hall. As soon as she saw me she’d say, “I was hoping you didn’t forget me!” and she would hold my hand as we walked to get our trays. One thing that I will always remember from those meals is that Barbara was always happy. I always asked her how her day had been, and she would give her response, “It’s been swell!’ Not once did she complain. Several times a month we were joined by Barbara’s friend of more than 40 years, Chuck, and I cannot put into words how happy Barbara was to have us on either side of her.
One thing that Sister Barbara and I had in common was our love of scrapbooking. Barbara had shelves of scrapbooks in her room. She asked me to come help her with her books one day during lunch. I told her that I had to go back to work, but that we could work on the scrapbooks after supper if she wanted.
When I came into Providence for supper, Barbara was waiting and hadn’t forgotten I promised to help her with her scrapbooks. After receiving the proper permission, I went up to her room and we looked through her scrapbooks. She had photos from her childhood, her travels, her life in community as well as people she knew. I was deeply moved when Barbara showed me a page in one of her scrapbooks that had a photo of me from HOPE Magazine carrying a candle at my Rite of Commitment as a Providence Associate in 2012.
After that, I started bringing over the scrapbook of my own that I was working on, and we worked on them together. Barbara loved music, so I always played songs for her on my phone while we worked on her books. There is an instrumental piece called “Redeemer” by Paul Cardall that came on one evening, and Barbara asked me to play it again for her. And then again. I finally put it on repeat, and it became the song we listened to as we scrapbooked. Barbara also liked to talk as we worked. There were quite a few times when a photo in one of her scrapbooks would trigger a memory and she would tell a story. I will forever remember that her mother, Margaret, was a faithful member of Saint Constance Parish. This is something that Barbara told me many times.
On the weekends, I went with Barbara to the Providence Community Room for movie night. She never missed a movie night no matter what was being shown. One night, there was a scene of a man beating his wife. Barbara tapped me on the shoulder, pointed up to the screen, and said in a loud voice “That man’s a rat!” Even though it was a difficult scene, Barbara had all the sisters laughing. Sister Mary Moloney sat behind us and she said, “You’ve got that right, Barbara!” If a movie ended with upbeat music, you can bet that Barbara danced all the way out of the community room.
Faith and nature
Sister Barbara was a woman of incredible faith. I sat with her at Mass on the weekends, and she sang most of the hymns from memory. She always took my arm when it was time for communion and we walked up arm-in-arm to receive the Lord. Sometimes after supper she would ask if I would take her to the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. She would place her hand on Mother Theodore’s tomb and say, “I love you.” We would sit awhile and then off we would go to scrapbook.
During the spring we could take evening walks around campus. Barbara absolutely loved being out of doors. She loved the breeze, the singing birds, the blooming flowers, everything. Her appreciation for everything in creation was an incredible teaching moment for me. Barbara often asked if I would take her to the cemetery to see the grave of her aunt Sister Dorothy Mary (Noe). I promised her I would, so I got the proper permission to take her out that far. I also got a map with Sister Dorothy Mary’s grave marked so it would be easy for us to find. These visits triggered some beautiful memories for Barbara, and now I also know a little bit about Sister Dorothy Mary.
One summer evening, Chuck took Barbara and me out to Saint Mary’s Supper Club. It was a wonderful evening of friendship among the three of us.
As my time at White Violet came to a close, I prepared my intern project. I invited Sister Barbara over to the center for the presentation. I dedicated the project to her, and I will never forget her telling me how proud she was with tears in her eyes. A few weeks after I left White Violet and the Woods, I received a letter from Barbara in the mail thanking me for the time we spent together.
Since leaving White Violet in 2017, I’ve continued to return to the Woods to visit Barbara a few times a year. Anytime a sister passed me in the halls she would say, “Have you seen Barbara yet?” That’s a question that I will no longer be asked. I cannot imagine being at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods without seeing Sister Barbara Doherty. However, I know that Barbara will always be part of the Woods. She once told me that she was “only a prayer away!”
“Redeemer” by Paul Cardall is on YouTube. Look it up sometime, and remember Sister Barbara. She loved listening to this song over and over.