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Oral history: Sister Barbara Ann Bluntzer

Sister Barbara Ann Bluntzer today.

“When I was 4-and-a-half years old we moved from the city of Corpus Christi, Texas, to the Bluntzer farm and ranch, 40 miles inland. My great aunt was widowed and no longer wished or was able to stay on the land. We lived there in a large, old ranch house with a wide hall down the center to keep it cool in the summer. At that time, I was an only child with no one around for miles to play with. So, I rode up and down that wide hall on my tricycle and then my bicycle. Out to the front porch, circle around, back down the hall. Over and over.”

Remote solitude. More than 1,150 miles separated Sister Barbara Ann Bluntzer from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, where Providence would lead her on a journey that started in a hallway on a remote ranch in Texas.

Growing up

Sister Barbara Ann before entering the congregation

Sister Barbara Ann Bluntzer is the first-born child of Frank and Mildred Johnston Bluntzer. She has one beloved brother, John Lloyd, almost nine years younger, still living in Texas. Barbara Ann was born in Corpus Christi, right after the Stock Market crash. Before she was 8-years-old, the United States entered World War II. Her father, a banker in Corpus Christi, was chosen to take over the Bluntzer farm — a farm where electricity and phones would not be available until 1947, and cooking was done on a kerosene cook stove. But they moved to the farm. There were no children for miles, but there were pets: geese, goats, a donkey, a dog — and Barbara Ann enjoyed them all.  

It’s hard to imagine what life was like in Texas between Corpus Christi and the Mexico border 20 miles away. The land was fertile for growing cotton and vegetables. But it was sparsely populated. Barbara Ann’s family has a rich history of land ownership in that area, dating back to a time when land was granted to populate the area. They had emigrated from Alsace, France, in 1843. There are Bluntzer family members of note in Texas: an ancestor lost as a child and later rescued by a Native American who had had good experiences with the Bluntzers; men who were soldiers in the American-Mexican war, the Civil War, World Wars I and II; a Texas Ranger; an Indian scout; a devoted farmer; and the first woman elected to the Texas state legislature. And now, a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

Social butterfly

Sister Barbara Ann, pictured in front, with a teen volunteer group in 2020.

Mildred Bluntzer was concerned that her daughter had no friends to play with on that remote ranch, so she appealed to the nearby Girl Scout Camp to allow Barbara Ann to attend. They agreed, even though Barbara Ann was not a Scout because there were no troops nearby. And every year even through high school she attended camp for the entire summer. She loved it! There were friends and songs and art and dancing and roughing it and sharing and fun! The groundwork was being laid for a life devoted to appreciation of the arts and a love of sharing that with others.

“If we have been nursed on great ideas, great experiences, great beauty and great awareness, life will have no limits.”

– Sister Joan Chittister

A love of art and music comes from Sister Barbara’s mother, who exposed her children to classical music and dance and singing. Mildred Bluntzer, from Chicago, had been exposed to the art world before moving to Corpus Christi. The Bluntzers also shared a love of reading with their children. With four or five magazines coming to the house each month, it was not unusual for the kids to get caught up in reading and ‘forget’ their chores.

Childhood church

Sister Barbara Ann’s father was Catholic, and she attended church with him in nearby San Patricio, a small village that had been settled by Irish Catholics. It had become a skeleton town in the 1930s and ‘40s, with a few homes, a filling station, and a small church with a pump organ played by Barbara Ann’s cousin. San Patricio is still there, a small village that hosts the “World Championship Rattlesnake Race” attended by a great crowd each year.

Sister Barbara Ann Bluntzer in prayer.

Church was an enigma to Barbara Ann. “I didn’t know the songs. We knelt on hard wooden kneelers. Of course, the Mass was in Latin. As far as Communion, it was a big mystery to me. The priest poured two somethings into this cup and at time for Communion there were these white wafers that came out! Was that magic or what? As far as what Communion meant? I had zilch idea! I attended catechism classes, but when I made my First Communion, I had no clue about it. I probably knew only how to make the Sign of the Cross.”

Meaningful and descriptive words about a humble beginning in faith from Sister Barbara Ann Bluntzer, who has been a Sister of Providence for 75 years.

“Let us hope that the few seeds sown may not remain unproductive of fruit.”

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

Even though many of the rituals of the Mass seemed mysterious to her, Barbara Ann was also learning a little about religion at Scout Camp. And her father was devoted to her exposure to the Catholic faith even though she isn’t sure how much he himself knew about their shared faith.

School days

Sister Barbara Ann in 2020.

Barbara Ann rode an old creaky bus to Bluntzer School, a mile-and-a-half from their home. There were about 13 students for six grades, two or three students per grade and only one teacher! Whatever grade you were in, you were absorbing what the teacher was teaching to the other students. Students could go to the blackboard to draw and play tic-tac-toe during other students’ lessons. Barbara Ann remembers that one of the mysteries of school was in a geography book that had little dots on a U.S. map, and each dot stood for a million bushels of wheat. Due to Texas’ climate and soil, at that time the word ‘wheat’ had no meaning for her. Nor did the concept of 10,000 or a million bushels. Cotton was king in that part of Texas!

In sixth grade, the state of Texas mandated everyone skip a grade to comply with their new 12-grade system. Barbara Ann became a very young eighth grader. She knew there was a Catholic school in Corpus Christi, the Incarnate Word Academy, and she wanted to attend. It was a larger school and her parents were all for it. So she stayed with her grandmother and aunt for a year.

This was Barbara Ann’s first encounter with a religious community. The Sisters of the Incarnate Word wore the long habit and veils. All that could be seen were their hands and face. The mysterious was gradually becoming more familiar.

Dance

Sister Jessica Vitente and Sister Barbara Ann dance at a Filipino Christmas Party.

I loved being in Corpus Christi! My cousin and I rode the bus together: she to public school, me to Catholic school. I took dancing lessons – tap and ballet – and I was good. I loved it! I would practice tap on my grandmother’s wooden porch after the lessons, and I was the only one who knew all the steps at the next lesson!” Barbara Ann laughed at the memory of her grandmother and aunt’s loving tolerance of the sound of tapping on a wooden porch so she could enjoy dancing.

Barbara Ann’s mother had also encouraged her to take piano lessons, which she did while at the Bluntzer School. But at Grandmother’s it was dance.

Barbara Ann’s year of school in Corpus Christi occurred during World War II. Located on the Gulf of Mexico, Corpus Christi has been home to the United States Naval Air Station since 1941. It had six different airfields with planes everywhere, PBY-4 planes – ‘patrol bomber’ amphibian planes – and Sister Barbara Ann remembers them always overhead as pilots took off and landed on water continuously, training for service. The Naval Air Station trained 35,000 naval aviators in Corpus Christi during the war. Military life was a large part of Corpus Christi culture. Barbara Ann’s dance recitals reflected this sense of patriotism, with dance recital costumes in marine green colors — and sparkly. Everyone supported the war. Barbara Ann and other students would ride around town in jeeps and trucks asking for nylons and aluminum foil and metal for recycling for the war effort.

Providence

Singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” are Sisters Jeremy Gallet, Barbara Ann Bluntzer and Maureen Abbott.

Barbara Ann returned home after eighth grade. She and her mother and brother moved into Robstown while her father stayed on the ranch. Barbara Ann’s brother John Lloyd was a student at St. John Nepomucene Elementary School where the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods had begun teaching in 1946 — their first mission in Texas. The sisters had been invited there by Rev. George Scecina, originally from Linton, Indiana, whose two cousins were Sisters of Providence. Barbara Ann did visit often with the Sisters at St. John, especially when Sister Maureen Cecile Palmer made cookies on Saturdays. Providence was continuing its subtle background melody!

Cotton and cantaloupes and other vegetables grew well on the Bluntzer land and surrounding farms. The food had to be hauled to the railroad tracks in Robstown to be distributed in refrigerated cars to the rest of the country. Business was booming, and the owner of the distribution company invited his brother-in-law, Fritz Abbott from New York, to join him in the transportation business. The Abbott family moved to Robstown, and one of the children, Maureen Abbott, would eventually become a Sister of Providence also. Barbara Ann and Maureen’s brothers remain best friends to this day.

High school

Sister Barbara Ann in mid-life.

Barbara Ann attended Robstown High School, a public school known as the ‘Cotton Pickers.’ Piano lessons began once again, but singing was Barbara Ann’s preference. And of course, classical music.

I loved high school. I had lots of friends; we did fun things. We had a cheerleader group, and I went on band trips even though I wasn’t in the band. Robstown was a safe place to walk home at night. Children of Mexican descent attended St. John and Robstown schools. There was no animosity, and racial issues were not part of my early life. I have always admired the richness of the Hispanic culture.”

After graduation from Robstown High School, Barbara Ann went to nursing school in Austin. Although she felt she had learned a lot at Robstown High School, she had never taken a chemistry course. She returned home at Christmas time; nursing was not going to be her career. Step by step, this dance was being choreographed by Providence.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

– E.M. Forster

Being nudged

“I had a good friend in Robstown. She told me she wanted to join the convent. My response was: ‘Why on earth would you do that? Look at all the fun you can have here! You’ll have to cover up your hair!’ I went on and on. But she wanted to go. She left after her freshman year and came to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. I had met the Sisters of Providence in Robstown, and I used to go visit them with her, but this life didn’t interest me at all.”

Barbara Ann’s friend, Caroline, went to the Woods in June and planned to receive the habit in January. Her parents were coming to the Woods and Barbara Ann said that she would love to see her friend Caroline receive the habit, so she traveled with them.

… be assured that in leaving the past to the mercy of God, and the future to Providence you will derive from your offering very great peace and very great consolation.”    

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

Saint Mary-of-the-Woods

The Avenue. Sisters, their families and friends have been coming to Saint Mary of the Woods for 184 years.

Barbara Ann’s experience on arrival at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods was immediate. “I was so taken with this place,” she said. “I came in the East door here and I thought ‘oh my gosh.’ Everything was just lovely. Everything was just perfect, just right.”

Barbara Ann Bluntzer had been being prepared her whole life for just that day.

When she arrived back home she told her mother that she wanted to return to the Woods. Her mother didn’t understand. She asked Barbara Ann, ‘What on earth happened to you? You’ve been going with a young man, dating, doing things with your friends.’

“I don’t know. It’s just something I want to do. I felt so called to come here.”

Put yourself gently into the hands of Providence.

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

Frank Bluntzer was pleased with his daughter’s choice. Mildred Bluntzer didn’t understand her daughter’s pull, but she worked to get her clothes ready so her daughter could accompany the Sisters of Providence back to Indiana when school finished that year. Barbara Ann had applied and been accepted by the Sisters of Providence. As soon as school was out in May, they closed the school and left because it gets so “blasted hot” in Texas in the summer. The train ride to the Woods and wearing a postulant outfit made for a ride that was “blazing hot.” There was no talking. It was ‘silent time,’ and she had no watch to check the time.

Sister Barbara Ann as a postulant, a new member of the congregation, in 1949.

Becoming a sister

When they arrived at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods it was after dinner and recreation time in what is now the Providence dining room. “The Superior General and a couple of Sisters sat at one end of the room, and at the other end everyone else was in a circle. Reverend Mother rang a bell to announce, ‘Here are our Sisters from Robstown, and here is our new postulant, Barbara Ann Bluntzer.” There was much oohing and ahhhing and clapping. She was the third postulant from Robstown.

The band of sisters ahead of Barbara Ann had been together since February. Her own band wouldn’t arrive for another month. So she was with the February band for a few weeks, working and recreating with them. “What good friends they were to me!”

Learning and teaching

Sister Barbara Ann earned elementary education degrees from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and later Indiana University, where she studied music, art and dance. “It took a while to amass your required credits. Dinner was at noon. Maybe you had a job of cleaning up or doing dishes or something. Then you ran over to class after chores. At one point in our history there were 1,600 of us as the total number of Sisters of Providence.”

Postulant for six months, first-year novice, second-year novice — then you were a teacher. Early on she had been given the religious name ‘Sister Mary Martha.’

Sister Barbara Ann in her early years with the congregation.

“My first class was at St. Joan of Arc in Indianapolis. I had 52 second- and third-graders. What did I know? It was hard. Oh my goodness, it was hard!” It was mid-January, a double grade and a large class of students!

Sister Barbara Ann told of having to take 52 second- and third-graders to church every first Friday of the month. There the third graders could receive Communion. Of course, they had been fasting, so it was her responsibility to have milk and donuts available for the students after Mass. The students paid for this with dimes, nickels and pennies. She can look back now and laugh at trying to make change for 14 cents out of a quarter while second graders were on hold waiting for her. All something she was not unfamiliar with having spent her elementary years in a combined classrooms school. She can also laugh at the principal telling her: ‘This is wonderful! You’ll do a great job! And when you get the children under control, then we’ll take them to the Children’s Museum!’ “In the two-and-a-half years I was there, we never went!”

Adventures

Sister Barbara Ann continued her teaching missions in Terre Haute, Oklahoma City, Robstown, St. Louis, Corpus Christi. She was happy to return to the South for teaching – “It was wonderful!” But is quick to say that the many places she has been all have been as rich as the South in myriad aspects.

Two summers in Chicago working for Catholic Youth Organization Parks allowed her to explore the parks, the zoo, the museums, the sights of Chicago every afternoon once the children left for the day. “I loved it!”

She especially enjoyed getting to meet her mother’s family. Mrs. Bluntzer had moved from Chicago to Corpus Christi, but Sister Barbara Ann said that her mother’s heart was always in Chicago. Meeting her mother’s side of the family was a cherished part of being in Chicago.

School integration

Sister Barbara Ann tells of the challenges of her first time in Oklahoma City schools because they were not integrated at that time. And an all-white parish and a white pastor liked it that way. An African American physician came to the school to enroll his children, but the pastor would not allow it. The doctor then went to the Bishop, and the children were enrolled in school. When she returned to teach a few years later, the neighborhood had changed and the school was predominantly Black students. “The personality was totally different. It was fun and happy!” Sister Barbara Ann taught a class of ‘creative dance’ along with fourth and fifth grade classroom students. She remains in touch with many of her former students even now.

In 1972, Sister Barbara Ann interrupted her elementary teaching career and returned to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to take classes. She was ready to move on from teaching. Sister Barbara Ann feels blessed to have had instruction from Sisters Barbara Doherty, Ruth Eileen Dwyer and Alexa Suelzer. She appreciates the benefit from their great wisdom and knowledge regarding the Sisters of Providence and theology. She was excited about the new direction the Congregation could explore as the result of Vatican II.

Parish ministry

Sister Doris Broerman (left) and Sister Barbara Ann (right) with a Native American in the Rio Grande Valley.

Sister Barbara Ann wanted to work in a parish, and that was still novel since Sisters of Providence had traditionally been a teaching order. The late Sister Doris Broerman was also taking a class in preparation for parish work. “We agreed we wanted to do this together. So we did things together in the summer – camping, sightseeing, visiting, dinners – and that experience was a godsend, a model for sisters living together. People were so impressed at how well we got along.”

Sisters Barbara Ann and Doris served parishes in Texas along the Rio Grande Valley for six years. They served predominantly Mexican American parishes. Doris ministered with more of the youth physical activities. Barb did catechism classes, serving as Director of Religious Education. They then traveled to Somerset, Kentucky, to work for two years. Sadly, Sister Doris developed cancer. Doris’s family was in Evansville and so the sisters returned to Indiana so she could be near her family.

St. Joseph Parish in Benton, Illinois, was next for both of them. But Sister Barbara Ann’s housemate and companion in parishes for 10 years was dying. Sister Doris came back to the Woods and the pastor at St. Joseph Parish relieved Sister Barbara Ann of her ministry to be with Doris. She died in 1984. “After 11 years of living and working together, it was a big change for me. We had had a great partnership. I still see friends from the time we were together. They still remember us.”

Back home in Texas

Sister Barbara Ann teaching a group of religious education teachers in 1980, Mission, Texas.

Sister Barbara Ann returned to Robstown and Corpus Christi, Texas, parishes in 1986 and stayed for the next 32 years. She was Director of Religious Education and taught middle school religion and art.

Sister Barbara Ann remains very close to her brother John Lloyd, who remains on the Bluntzer Farm. They talk every night on the phone. He and his wife Evelyn are active Catholics who also care for the ranch. He is outgoing and personable, much like Barbara Ann. They have modernized the home place — the ranch house with the wide hallway built for trikes and bikes is narrower now. She has two nephews whose families she loves dearly. She no longer travels distances. Her cousin from Washington, D.C., came to visit her last summer, a true joy for her to connect again with her mother’s family.

Living and loving life

From top left, Sisters Martha Rojo and Maureen Abbott. From bottom left, Sisters Dorothy Karier, Jeremy Gallet, and Sister Barbara Ann.

“I’ve had a wild life.”

When Sister Barbara Ann was in Robstown teaching earth science, she applied for a scholarship grant for study. She applied for 30 places, was awarded nine, and chose Michigan Tech on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to study Earth Science. While there for six weeks, she made friends with someone who later contacted her and asked her to go to Europe with her as her guest. She went! During those two weeks in 1990 she saw the Passion Play at Oberammergau as well as other places in Germany and Austria.

Our sacrifices are not meant to make our lives more empty, but the lives of others more full.

Back in Texas in 2010, Collette Travel approached Sister Barbara Ann and asked if she would consider being a ‘tour host.’ She would travel with expenses paid if she could sign up a certain number of participants – usually among parish groups. She was able to accompany tours to Canada, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, Europe several times, Alaska several times, and Ireland. The ‘teacher’ in her continued on these tours, as she educated herself about their destination and shared it with tour members. Sister Barbara Ann also visited the Holy Land with the parish she was serving.

Sister Barbara Ann

Invitations

While at St. Pius X Parish in Corpus Christi, Sister Barbara Ann was asked by the Corpus Christi Literacy Council to train tutors as well as to be a tutor for individual adults who could speak English but had never learned to read English. These adults had perhaps been the children of migrant workers who moved too frequently to benefit from school. Others were adults who had been unable to complete their education. It was one of her most rewarding ministries. She was also asked to go to China to tutor women who were interested in the Sisters of Providence Community. She did and was there a month.

Embracing life’s blessings

Sister Barbara Ann on a call.

“I’ve lived such a full and exciting life. God’s world is packed with so much! It has been a godsend. I get excited just thinking about it. That’s my mother in me. She was interested in things.”

Barb is quick to point out that this country and every city in it has places to visit and enjoy. She encourages people to get out and see the things around them. She named half a dozen places in St. Louis worth visiting.

What delights her? “Getting up in the morning. I almost went to volunteer with the book sale this morning, before our meeting.”

Make no mistake. Sister Barbara Ann is a member of the ‘Silent Generation,’ as are many Sisters of Providence, born during the years of the Great Depression and World War II. And indicative of this generation, she is not silent. This generation produced Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, Luciano Pavarotti, Robert F. Kennedy, a President and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Sister Barbara Ann has embraced love, mercy and justice and has lived it in her ministries. She is vital, like the Sisters of Providence in her community. There is a wisdom that comes with age and experience, a calm, coupled with a way of looking at the world as it is, with the knowledge of the history of what it has been.

Soul is what we bring to life that gives us the capacity to appreciate it.

Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B.      

How can we help?

Sister Barbara Ann greets visitors at Christmas Fun at the Woods.

“I was teaching in St. Louis when Vatican II happened. I am thrilled that the community has kept up with so many things that are going on and how we can be part of that. To make things better. To make things move along in a fair and just society, in a well-fed society, in a well-educated society. How can we help? What can we do to help things move along? I went along with Vatican II all the way.”

There are many happy memories Sister Barbara Ann has from her experiences. She recalled being on the stage at the Conservatory at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and participating in a performance, ‘The Woodcarver of Minau’. Minau is a town in the Tyrolean Alps. “Sister Joseph Eleanor wrote it in a poetic way. We must have memorized it. So when I was in Tyrol in Europe, I had a copy of this poem and I read that and it was such a richness! I could just remember it all over again and picture it and the village and the people.”

Living the sacred

Sister Barbara Ann Bluntzer with General Officers Sisters Jenny Howard and Dawn Tomaszewski at her 70th Jubilee celebration.

Sister Barbara Ann has had a bountiful life. Does she have a sacred space? Yes, she travels in her mind to the ranch where she grew up, and where her brother lives. She had remarked to a previous interviewer that if she had not chosen a religious vocation, she might have been farming, with animals around her. She finds prayer in the morning and evening a most helpful spiritual practice.

Send your heart a thousand times a day to the tabernacle.

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

Did she ever re-evaluate her choice of vocation? Not really. It was settled when she took final vows. Advice for someone considering a religious vocation? “Shop around. Find a community that offers what you want to do with your life, a community that fits you.”

“I am very busy. I have energy. I’ve had good doctors. Good food. And I like to be fed by things I see, things I hear — like classical music.”

Creating beauty

Sister Barbara Ann Bluntzer at St. Joseph Lake during a break in chapter.

Art calls to her. Liturgical dance. Classical music. Floral arrangement. Organizing celebrations. It is the influence of her mother, she says. She has four avocado pits growing. She loves to give tours at Providence Spirituality and Conference Center and the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Sister Barbara Ann has volunteered to work with alpaca fiber, at book sales. She is busy every day. And she is in contact with people she has encountered along the way, people who reach out to her to say ‘hello’ and share memories.

Vision is what I am willing to spend my life trying to make possible for others.

“You never lose people. They’re there. I feel so rich. I am so grateful. It is the rich life I have had in so many ways here and branching out and able to see and enjoy and believe, and hopefully bring people to a new place in their own lives.”

When I first met Sister Barbara Ann Bluntzer, she was sitting in the hallway at Providence Hall, a watering container at hand. I introduced myself, asked for directions to a room, and we talked. I was taken with her enthusiasm as we chatted briefly, having never met. She is genuine.

She was watering plants in the large windows on each floor of Providence that day. One of the elevators was broken so she was resting before walking back to get more water, walking to the other elevator, going to the next floor, walking to the windows to water plants. 

 “Down the hall, out on the porch, turn around, back down the hall.”  It has taken her far.

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Debbie Griffey

Debbie Griffey

Debbie Griffey has been a Providence Associate since 2009. Debbie is a clinical social worker and a licensed teacher. She has spent much of the past decade working outside the country most of each year. She has worked on military bases in the United States, Europe and Japan. She currently works part-time while residing on the family farm in Shelby County Indiana, where she manages the adult llamas her children showed in 4-H. Debbie has three adult children and five grandchildren.

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6 Comments

  1. Avatar Lorraine Kirker PA on June 7, 2024 at 4:26 pm

    Wonderful life, wonderful story.

  2. Avatar Eileen Horan, PA on June 8, 2024 at 3:41 pm

    What a wonderful story of a very full life of service and adventure! The hand of Providence is definitely evident in Sister Barbara’s life. Thank you for sharing her story.

  3. Avatar Paula Damiano, SP on June 12, 2024 at 10:01 am

    Thank you, Deb! It’s such a gift to have Barbara in our LGU these many years. She’s so genuine and you captured well the story of a woman who is fully dedicated to Providence, to the Congregation and to God’s people.

  4. Avatar Leila Short on June 13, 2024 at 4:59 am

    Amazing story. I remember meeting Sister Barbara at the book sale, what a wonderful personality, and her beautiful smile!

  5. Avatar Madonna on June 14, 2024 at 10:47 am

    I believe Sr Barbara Ann and I were at St Joan of Arc at the same time. 1950s. OMG.

  6. Avatar Connie SP on June 15, 2024 at 11:29 am

    Thanks for sharing your sacred story with all of us.

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