Erie diocese opens sainthood cause of lay educator, advocate for those with disabilities

Dr Barber Dr. Gertrude Barber. Courtesy photo.

When Dr. Gertrude Barber became the assistant superintendent of the Erie School District in Pennsylvania, the standard practice for educating children with disabilities and special needs was to institutionalize them.

This did not sit well with Barber, who had dedicated her career to the education of children with mental and physical disabilities.

In 1952, with the help of teachers volunteering their time and efforts after-hours, Barber opened Erie's first community-based program for children with special needs in a room at the YMCA that allowed them to return to their families at the end of the day.

This was the beginning of the Dr. Gertrude A. Barber Center, now called the Barber National Institute, which currently serves more than 4,000 children and adults with disabilities in Pennsylvania.

Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie announced Dec. 12 that he was formally opening the cause of canonization of Dr. Barber for her life-long efforts to help those in need, influenced by her Catholic faith.

"It is an honor to open the cause for sainthood for Dr. Gertrude Barber," Bishop Persico said in a statement.

"Her family members, and the thousands of families who have been touched by the work she initiated in her lifetime, are surely thrilled to be part of this historic moment. But I am particularly pleased that the good work of Dr. Barber, motivated by her Catholic faith and undertaken on behalf of those in need, will now be known more fully by those throughout our region and beyond."

Barber was born in Erie Sept. 16, 1911, the seventh of ten children born to John and Kathryn (Kate) Barber. When Gertrude was just seven years old, her father died during the influenza epidemic. Her oldest sibling did not survive infancy.

According to the Association for the Cause of Gertrude Barber, friends and family encouraged Kate to place her many children in an orphanage. But Kate was determined to keep them all at home, to give them a good education, and to instill in them the value of serving others which she had shared with her husband. All nine of the surviving Barber children graduated high school, and five earned college degrees.

Gertrude earned her bachelor's degree in elementary education from Penn State University, where she continued her education and earned a master's in psychology and doctorate in educational administration. She finished post-doctoral work at Syracuse University, the University of Buffalo, and Adelphi University.

Her faith, as well as the values of education and service to others, were foundational to Barber's career as an educator and advocate for people with disabilities. According to the association, Barber at one time expressed a desire to be a missionary in foreign country, but was encouraged by a superintendent to be a missionary in her home town by becoming an advocate for children with learning and physical disabilities.

In 1933, Barber became a special education teacher for Erie's school district. Ten years later, she took the position of home and school visitor for the district, and in 1945 she became the district's coordinator of special education programs.

As a home and school visitor, part of Barber's job included telling some parents of children with disabilities that their child could not enroll in their local school, and must either be educated at home or sent to faraway institutions.

"I would have to go to the parents and tell them that their children could not go to school anymore," Barber once said.

The experience solidified her convictions to help children with disabilities in a way that kept their families as involved as possible in their lives and education.

In 1952, with a small group of parents, teachers, and volunteers, she opened a classroom for children with disabilities at a local YMCA, and continued to advocate for a more permanent space for her programs. As previously mentioned, this first classroom was the foundation of what is now the Barber National Institute.

In 1958, a former hospital used to treat polio patients was given to Barber by the City of Erie as a space for both a school for children and a program for adults with disabilities, and Barber's programs quickly expanded. In 1962, Barber was appointed to President John Kennedy's White House Task Force on the Education and Rehabilitation of the Mentally Retarded, where she helped bring national awareness to the needs of children and adults with disabilities.

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As the years went on, the Dr. Gertrude A. Barber Center sprouted satellite locations throughout the region. Legislation protecting the rights of children and adults with disabilities passed, and the Center became a hub for implementing new and improved methods of education and training for the disabled.

In the 1970s, Barber established local group homes for adults who had been institutionalized for their disabilities as children, the beginning of now more than 50 group homes for adults with disabilities operating in Erie County today. In the 1990s, Barber worked to turn the center into a national institute for the best research, education, training and care available for people with disabilities.

Barber received numerous awards and honors for her work throughout her life, including an honorary LL.D. degree from Gannon University in 1982, the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award from St. John Paul II in 1984, and the Unitas Award from Gannon University in 1984.

Barber died suddenly while on a trip to Florida in 2003 at the age of 87. She is remembered for her selfless, compassionate, personal, and groundbreaking care for children and adults with disabilities.

"Dr. Barber served as a model for all of us to become more giving and to see God in one another," John Barber, nephew of Dr. Barber and president of the Barber National Institute, said at the announcement of the opening of his aunt's cause for canonization.

"She established the philosophy which we at the Barber National Institute live by, which is 'all children are welcome here.' I know that she would look at this honor today not as a recognition of her, but as an honor for the children and adults she served."

The opening of the cause means that Barber can now be referred to with the title "Servant of God", and that the Diocese of Erie will open a formal inquiry into her life and works. Msgr. Thomas McSweeney, a retired priest and former director of the Office of Evangelization for Communications for the Diocese of Erie, will serve as postulator for the cause. He will be interviewing those who knew Barber and want to share testimonies about her impact on their lives.

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Once the inquiry is complete, the cause will be presented to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for further approval.

If canonized, Barber could be the first United States layperson to be canonized a saint.

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