By Paula Burba
Sister Barbara Lawler Thomas, a former president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, died Thursday at Nazareth Home. She was 87.
Thomas was the first nun to lead the religious order under the title “president” instead of the traditional “superior general” when she assumed leadership of the order headquartered in Nazareth, Ky., in 1972.
Her leadership for the next eight years was as progressive as the title change, said caregiver and former assistant Donna Kenney.
“She was fearless in her leadership during that time and in trying to get the sisters to really embrace what Vatican II was calling religious congregations to at that time,” Kenney said, referring to the mid-1960s council that brought sweeping reforms to the Roman Catholic Church. “She’s probably one of the most loved people in the congregation. People just had the greatest respect and admiration for her.”
“She was a woman of vision, a woman of courage, a woman of great faith, a woman who had a great sense of where religious life was going,” said Sister Margaret Rodericks, a leader in the order who once served as provincial for the order in India. “We would not be where we are today if it were not for her leadership.”
In 1975 Thomas also served as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a national organization for leaders of religious orders of women.
“She wasn’t just well-respected in our community, but well-respected among women religious everywhere,” said Sisters of Charity of Nazareth spokeswoman Diane Curtis.
Born Nov. 17, 1921, in Richmond, Va., Thomas joined the order when she was 21. She was a provincial — or regional leader — from 1965 to 1972 to sisters in the Northern Kentucky and Ohio area, Kenney said.
When she became president, Thomas “went wherever she needed to go to really try to instill the principles of Vatican II in the (sisters) and to get them to move in that direction,” Kenney said.
Thomas was an internationally respected authority on Canon Law. After leaving the presidency, she took a post at Our Lady of Peace Hospital in Louisville and began writing and traveling internationally to lecture and lead workshops on renewal in the church, according to Kenney, who frequently traveled with her.

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