Sister Barbara Spencer was born in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 31, 1935. Her given name was Bobbie Spencer. She was the second of three children with an older brother, Doug and a younger sister, Dot.
Barbara’s mother Ruth had also been born and raised in Tupelo. As a young woman Ruth was able to follow her dream of attending nursing school. She and her best friend, Gladys Love Smith (later to become Gladys Presley, mother of Elvis) traveled together to Jackson, Mississippi to attend classes.
As young mothers Ruth and Gladys lived next door to each other in small shot-gun houses. Since they were close friends they often visited bringing their babies, Bobbie and Elvis, together to play.
Being a single mom Ruth had to work very hard to raise her young family in the midst of the Great Depression. In addition to her nursing duties Ruth took in washing from neighbors to support her children. Barbara remembers the old wash tub her mother labored over on long hot days and remembers helping her hang the clothes on the backyard clothesline. Barbara said her mother seemed to work twelve hours a day seven days a week and there was never a complaint from the customers about the quality of work Ruth had done.
Bobbie was a smart little girl and her mother enrolled her in school when she was only five, a little earlier than legal. Young Bobbie did not want to go to school and cried all the way there each day. One day she told the teacher she did not want to be there because she was only five. When the teacher called her mother to pick her up from school because she was too young, her mom was not a bit happy about it. She dragged a crying Bobbie all the way home. The following year as a six year old Bobbie was again enrolled in school and this time she had to stay.
The family was not Catholic at that time. Bobbie tells how her mother loved to go to revivals no matter who put them on. Ruth took all three children with her to every revival around and stepped up to be baptized each time. Young Bobbie was so impressed with the baptisms that she hid under the house and baptized baby chicks. Sadly, every chick died by drowning. Bobbie thinks her mom joined every church in Tupelo. She remembers attending the Holiness Church, a Pentecostal Church, but the family did not attend regularly.
Barbara confesses that she was so bad as a child that nobody ever wanted to take her anywhere. Her mother used to pay Bobbie’s older cousin Margie to take Bobbie to a movie to get her out once in a while.
In 1945 the family moved to Memphis and lived temporarily with an aunt who was not really a relative but a friend of Ruth’s. She tried without success to find work. The friend told Ruth about St. Peter’s home for Children and suggested they would help her. Ruth, in desperation, considered placing her children there, but when she learned visiting hours were only on Sundays between 2:00 and 4:00 PM, she decided she could not do that as the thought of being separated from her children was too painful to consider. She thought she could not live without seeing them daily.
Sister Mary Richard O’Bryan, the Administrator of St. Peter’s, offered Ruth a job as a nurse to work with the preschool children. Since she lived and worked at St. Peter’s she was able to spend time with her own children each evening. Barbara remembers helping her mother and Sister Natalie with the younger children providing a little relief for the adults.
The girls became attached to the Sisters and when a new Sister came to St. Peter’s everyone said, “She’s going to be my friend.”
Bobbie told the other girls, “I picked Sister Barbara Peterson to be my friend because we share the same name.” It was a friendship which lasted a lifetime.
As Bobbie/Sister Barbara tells it, “At St. Peter’s there were over 100 girls and I was just one of them. We learned how to get along with people and to develop a nice personality so we would get picked for games and activities. The boys and the girls were not allowed to talk with each other.”
Bobbie stayed at St. Peter’s until she completed elementary school. She became a Catholic while she was in the eighth grade choosing the name Barbara Ann. She saw all the other girls dressed in white for Confirmation and she wanted that too. She learned to pray the Stations of the Cross, but she always started at the 14th Station because everybody else was at the first Station.
When the students of St. Peters graduated from the eighth grade the girls were sent to other schools where SCNs taught. Barbara, along with others, was sent to Sacred Heart Academy in Helena, Arkansas for ninth and tenth grades. After that the girls requested to remain at St. Peter’s and attend Sacred Heart High School in Memphis. The Sisters allowed it but they were told they would have to walk the mile to school each day. The ten girls happily walked together daily to their classes.
Sister Jeanne Clare Bulleit, a social worker, became the new Administrator of St. Peter’s and wanted to change it from an orphanage to a treatment center. The Spencer family left St. Peter’s as Ruth was worn out from the work with young children. Ruth moved her family into a rented apartment. Barbara completed her high school education graduating from Sacred Heart in 1953. After high school Barbara worked as a secretary for a year and a half.
As a teenager she stayed in touch with her childhood friend, Elvis Presley, whose family had also moved to Memphis. She and Elvis would stop by Sun Studio to sing together in harmony. Most of the songs they sang were spirituals as Elvis said he only wanted to sing bass in the church choir.
Barbara said she dated and had expected to get married and have children, but she felt that something was missing. She called her dear friend at St. Peter’s, Sister Barbara Peterson, to talk with her about it and made the decision to go to the convent, a decision which surprised everyone, even herself.
Barbara entered the novitiate at Nazareth, Kentucky on September 24, 1954. After ten months of postulancy she received the habit on July 18, 1955 taking the name of Sister Mary Bridget. Upon completion of the two-year novitiate she made her profession of Vows on July 19, 1958 and was sent on her first mission to St. Thomas More School in Louisville where she taught the second grade. There were three new sisters in the house and Sister Mary Bridget became fast friends with each of them.
In January she was reassigned to St. Mary’s School in St. Clairsville, Ohio, where she taught the primary grades with a class of fifty students. During her seven years there Sister Mary Bridget felt isolated in the rural parish and her southern blood was always cold as it snowed the day after Thanksgiving and they did not see the ground again until Easter. Since she was the youngest in the house, she was asked to lead the procession of sisters down the hill to the church and school. The other sisters followed behind in her foot prints in the snow as they walked the three blocks to the church.
Another thin letter meant a move back to Louisville where Sister Mary Bridget was assigned to teach the first grade at Holy Name School for one year followed by a move to Bowling Green where she taught at St. Joseph School for one semester before being transferred back to Louisville to teach at St. Cecilia School until the end of the school year. It was about this time that she chose to use her baptismal name again and became known as Sister Barbara Spencer.
Mother Lucille Russell then asked Sister Barbara to study at the College of Social Work at the University of Tennessee in Nashville. She learned many skills which helped her immensely throughout her career in education and social work and prepared her for her work with Youth Villages. During that year of study she lived with the sisters at St. Mary Villa where she made many good friends.
In 1968 Sister Barbara returned to Memphis to assist her mother who was sick. While there she worked with the girls at St. Peter Orphanage presiding at play time, teaching them good hygiene and making sure they got to bed on time. She closed the school there as she believed the children should go out to school in the surrounding area. She often substituted for Sisters who were away for retreat.
She was assigned to St. Michael School where she served as principal for seven years. She remembers that first year as being very turbulent as parents picketed on registration day because the religious text book was changed as directed by the diocesan office. The parents found it hard to accept her because she was young and did not wear the habit of a sister. More protests erupted when she enforced a written school policy that required students to have a passing grade to participate in team sports.
Faculty, parents and students soon learned to love Sister Barbara and her leadership as they experienced a great school spirit with very little turnover of teachers. She set up individual learning centers for students to learn at their own rate. This method was so effective that teachers from other Catholic schools were sent to observe.
Sister Barbara brought guitar music to the school and taught worship songs to the students. “I felt that playing and singing the way the children like would be a good way to get them with me. It also gives them an opportunity to see me as more than a disciplinarian. Besides, I enjoyed it.” She formed a school choir which was always invited to sing the Christmas Eve Mass.
Sister Barbara was very conscious that St. Michael was an all-white school and invited African-American students from St. Augustine to visit, attend class and eat lunch with St. Michael students to provide a chance for them to get to know each other and to experience each other as fellow students. She looked for many opportunities to broaden the educational experiences of the students
One of Sister Barbara’s major accomplishments at St. Michael was to get state-approval, one of the first Catholic elementary schools in Memphis to do so. She worked closely with the state education office and with Dr. Elzey Danley, a Professor of Administrative Supervision in Education at Memphis State University where Sister Barbara was studying toward her Master’s Degree. She and Dr. Danley worked together to get state certification for the Catholic schools in the diocese. This would provide teachers with credit for their years of teaching in Catholic schools if they transferred to the public school system.
When she finished her principalship at St. Michael’s, Sister Barbara moved to West Memphis to be supportive of Sister Theresa Knabel who was in ministry at St. Patrick’s, a downtown parish in the heart of the city. Their rental home on Orleans Street became the gathering place for the priests and sisters of St. Patrick’s.
In the fall of 1976 Sister Barbara was hired by Father Al Kirk to work for the Diocese of Memphis in the Office of Religious Education where she was Religious Education Consultant and supervisor of the Parish Religious Education (PRE) for children. During this time she had the opportunity to study at Seattle University in Seattle, Washington as she prepared for her Master’s in Religious Education which she received in 1979.
As part of her program in Seattle, Sister Barbara wrote her thesis on requirements for teachers of religious education. She helped to develop a certification program for PRE teachers which required study in certain subjects to be approved by the diocese. This program was adopted by the Diocese of Memphis and was used for several years. Sister Barbara set up a training program to provide the classes the teachers needed. She loved working with the teachers and knew her work would impact the teaching of the children.
Sister Barbara began a new phase of her ministry in 1980 when she joined the staff at Dogwood Villages, a non-profit organization whose mission is to help troubled children and families live successfully. As Director of Education for eighty youth, Sister Barbara served as advocate for these youth by working with teachers and counselors. Many of the youth were from dysfunctional families and exhibited delinquent behaviors.
She soon discovered that few teachers knew how to handle troubled children. “Our kids were not stable enough to concentrate on learning. I knew that educationally their needs were not being met.” She believed that troubled children can learn if they are placed in an environment which teaches them how to handle their emotional problems so they can concentrate on learning.
By 1986 Dogwood Village merged with Boys Town and the name was changed to Youth Villages – charged with the care of over 1000 youth ages nine to twenty-one. Youth Villages continued to grow and is currently in twenty states.
Sister Barbara thinks that her greatest success was the establishment of an on-campus school that followed the same regulations as the other state schools. She guided the development of a curriculum for Youth Villages which incorporated the philosophy of the Reeducation of Emotionally Disturbed Children with academic goals. This curriculum led to the establishment of Youth Villages’ Tennessee as a state accredited school system.
“Youth Villages’ entire school system grew out of Sister Barbara’s basic belief in kids,” said Administrator Patrick Lawler. “It was always her dream to have a school on-site where the needs of children, both emotionally and educationally, could be met.”
“I love to be around kids,” said Sister Barbara. “Their eagerness to learn is infectious, and our chance to teach them is a blessing.”
Sister Barbara was instrumental in developing Project Memphis where the sixteen year old students had speakers brought into the classroom and the eighteen year old youth were required to have on-the-job training. It was Sister Barbara’s responsibility to find job placement for the youth and establish checking accounts for them with Youth Villages. The work/students could request funds as needed and the total amount was given to them at the time of their discharge.
In later years Sister Barbara directed the facility’s nationally recognized college internship program. She traveled to job fairs for college students and interviewed hundreds for the summer internship program. Many of these interns later became staff members at Youth Villages.
Sister Barbara’s honors include becoming the first recipient of the Clarence Day Legacy Award given by Youth Villages each year to a person who has dedicated his or her life to helping children. An additional honor was bestowed upon Sister Barbara by naming an education building for her at Youth Villages.
Sister Barbara was one of five women of Memphis who received the White Rose Award for exemplary achievement in professional work and community involvement. The award was presented at the White Rose Luncheon in September of 1994 by the West Tennessee Chapter of the March of Dimes.
Sister Barbara now resides at the Nazareth Motherhouse where she is in the ministry of prayer. She is still active in community activities including singing in the church choir, joining exercise activities and volunteering with the Office of Mission Advancement.
Interviewed by Sister Theresa Knabel, 2018
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