By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published September 20, 2018
ATHENS—As a Missionary Sister of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Sister Barbara Daniels has educated in faith and mathematics from the remote Pacific country of Papua New Guinea and cities across Africa to Catholic schools across Pennsylvania and an international spirituality center in France. And since 2012 she has joyfully carried out her latest international mission as sacramental coordinator at the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia, Athens.
In May, Sister Barbara celebrated her 50th anniversary jubilee of religious life with her order, founded in 1899 in Germany.
“I’m filled with gratitude for the many places I’ve been allowed to minister, and the Spirit has led me from one place to another, one country to another and my last mission was here in Georgia,” she said. “My love is the RCIA program. I spent four years in Papua New Guinea in mission, and I feel much more a missionary here in Athens because I’m introducing people who don’t know Christ or have some idea of what it means to be a baptized Christian but are searching—and they come to the Catholic Church.”
“Talk to Sister Barbara”
In serving at the UGA Catholic Center, she also directs baptismal, wedding and funeral preparations and a women’s Bible study, living the charism of “spirituality of the heart.”
“I find it very vibrant. It challenges everything about me: my spirituality, my intellect, even tugs at my emotions to be involved with those who are at pivotal points in their spiritual life … I’ll see how God uses me, they’ll send a note or an email and I’m in awe,” she said. “It’s really being surprised by the Spirit many times, an openness to (saying) ‘OK God you’re in charge.’”
Sister Barbara’s program averages 15 RCIA participants yearly. She recalled a Korean couple, both doctoral students, who experienced a sense of peace when sitting in a Catholic church and began a two-year journey of conversion. Others are often invited to church by friends or roommates and eventually encouraged to “talk to Sister Barbara.”
“We truly are Catholic in that all are welcome, and I see that throughout the membership at the Catholic Center, very diverse, because they come from many different countries and speak different languages. Also the true Southern hospitality comes through,” she reflected. Furthermore, “the number in the RCIA program in the diocese is overwhelming, I’ve never seen or experienced such big numbers. So that draws me into what I say is my missionary spirituality, which is that of the church, the welcoming of those who are seeking to know God, to know Christ and to live as disciples.”
Her friend Mim Bourke faithfully attends the women’s Bible study and finds that Sister Barbara is open to deep discussions, not just quick ecclesial responses.
“She has tremendous knowledge of the Bible,” said Bourke. “The way she teaches is so enveloping and enthralling, she’s really very talented. As talented as she is with that and as much religion as she knows, she’s very down to earth, she’s not a holier than thou nun. She’s just a very real person.”
The call came early
Sister Barbara grew up in Coaldale, Pennsylvania, where she was taught by Missionary Sisters. She decided young that she was called to be a missionary nun as her first grade teacher told tales of her sister serving in Papua New Guinea.
“I wouldn’t change it for anything. I had boyfriends in high school, I went to the prom, all that kind of stuff, but no, I knew this ever since I was in grade school.”
She earned her degree in math education and later a master’s in religious studies, first teaching math and in 1981 fulfilling her youthful visions for four years in Papua New Guinea. There she served as director of religious education for the Archdiocese of Rabaul.
“Whether it was in a storm in a boat or coming face to face with a crocodile, anything, it certainly increased my sense that the Lord is with me,” she recalled. “I couldn’t get Mass every week because I was on the road or in a boat on the way to an outer island for eight weeks out of 10. It made me much more aware that my sacramental spirituality did somersaults. I was turned upside down in the spirituality of the indwelling presence of God, that God is with me at all times and is protecting and leading me.”
Later Sister Barbara served on the leadership team for her community and as vocations director before heading to France for five years to minister at the Jules Chevalier International Center, named after the order’s spiritual founder. While there she also led workshops in locations around the world, from the Philippines and Dominican Republic to Senegal and Namibia.
“No matter which culture I was in, there was that basic charism of compassionate presence, listening, being the heart of God in the world by leading people where they are, as they are, and expressing or experiencing the presence of the love of God,” she said. “It’s the Spirit at work, and that made me realize what Catholic really means is universal.”
Making the love of Christ real
After later serving as the order’s provincial treasurer, she embraced the opportunity to come to Georgia.
“When that term was over I was asked if I’d like to come to Athens and before the question was finished I was like ‘yes!’ because our sisters have been here since 1938,” running St. Mary’s Hospital and St. Joseph Parish School in Athens for decades, she said.
Conventual Franciscan Father Bill McConville was the homilist for Sister Barbara’s jubilee Mass in Athens. He commended the breadth and depth of the catholicity of her ministries as a teacher, administrator, spiritual director and educator.
“Part of her community’s identity is to really embody and make real in people’s lives the love of Christ. She did that in many ways for many people in many continents,” said Father McConville.
The priest worked alongside her in Athens in the RCIA program.
“I found her approach to that was not only pretty reflective and intelligent, but she was very hospitable and compassionate,” he said. “People that I worked with had nothing but praise for her for the kind of personal attention she would give them.”
And Father McConville commended the nun’s resilience despite various health setbacks.
She continues to work hard and never really lost her sense of humor which I found marvelous,” he said, adding, “I think she was somewhat appalled … when I told her I was retiring.”
Now 70, Sister Barbara cheerfully ministers on and jokes that she’s “almost bionic ” in having had hip, two knee and shoulder replacement surgeries. She lives with another Missionary Sister at St. Mary’s retirement village as the last two remaining sisters of their order in Georgia, which once had 24. But, she said, “that is how it ought to be” that lay people step up in ministry where now “our mission is to form them in the spirit of our charism” as lay associates.
She believes that God still calls 21st-century women to religious life who want to devote 100 percent of their energies to the Gospel.
“It’s our prayer, our example, the life we lead, the witness we give. It’s multifaceted, not just what we do,” she said. “It’s how much can I give of my time and talent to the mission of the church, the mission of Christ.”
And for her, that ministry has been to educate.
“Education comes from the Latin ‘educare’ to lead and ‘ex,’ out. As an educator you’re leading somebody out from where they are to something bigger, better, challenging, using the gifts God has given them,” she explained.
Sister Barbara finds strength for the journey through daily spiritual nourishment.
“It’s the hour of prayer; sometimes it’s listening, sometimes it’s praying with Scripture, sometimes it’s just being in the presence of the Lord who dwells in me and letting go of everything, and basically saying Lord, ‘it’s so good to be here, I’m tired. You take over, let your Spirit energize me, speak to me the way you want me to.’ It’s bringing to the presence of the Lord all the people I’m working with in ministry,” she said. “That’s the highlight of every day, and of course Mass, the Eucharist.”