"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.
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.
Mary Farrow worked as a staff writer for Catholic News Agency until 2020. She has a degree in journalism and English education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.