Sister discovers her calling in pastoral counseling

GARDEN CITY — The pull toward a vocation came early for Dominican Sister Barbara Gentry. After two years in public school, Catherine and Hunter Gentry transferred their only child to St. Paul Catholic School on the north side of Richmond, Va. The young girl was immediately drawn to the nuns, Benedictine Sisters.

“As with many girls, I’m sure the habit had something to do with it,” she said.

Sister Gentry has been a nun for 50 years now and plans to continue celebrating her golden jubilee for an entire year.

The September after she graduated from Richmond’s St. Gertrude High School, Barbara and two of her friends entered into formation with the same Benedictine Sisters. She continued her education, first earning a bachelor’s degree in theology from La Roche College in Pittsburgh, followed by a master’s degree in religious education from Fordham University. She had a scholarship to Fordham and finished her master’s in a year and  a half.

Sister Gentry returned to Richmond, where she chaired the religion department at her alma mater, St. Gertrude High School. She developed a new approach to teaching religious education, which was considered revolutionary at the time.

Instead of teaching religious education to an entire grade level at one time, she divided the students into much smaller classes and rotated their teachers each term. This less rigid approach encouraged interchange of ideas and helped  the students’ thinking to mature.

In the early 1970s, Sister Gentry began working at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Richmond as a pastoral associate while continuing to work at the high school. A colleague suggested that she take a three-month course in basic clinical pastoral education during her summer break in 1976. These three months changed the direction of her life. She was following her longtime interest in healthcare.

Sister Gentry spent three intense months in training at the Medical College of Virginia. Richmond is home to a Presbyterian seminary, and many of her fellow students were Presbyterian seminarians. Groups of five students, under close supervision, served as chaplains to hospitalized patients. She and a Catholic seminarian in her group were the only Catholics in the program that summer. Sister Gentry said that now most seminaries, both Catholic and Protestant, require clinical pastoral education.

A year later, Sister Gentry took a one-year residency in clinical pastoral education through Richmond Memorial Hospital. All participants served as chaplains to the patients and also prepared interfaith Sunday services. Their work was critiqued by their peers, and many of the participants made changes in their ministries.

She said, “[The year] opened up a lot of possibilities of ministry to me. You really have to face yourself.”

Xaverian Brother Arthur Calliman recruited Sister Gentry for St. Joseph’s Villa, a children’s and family center in Richmond. He was looking for a religious person to serve as chaplain for the staff. He also pointed her in the direction of the Adrian Dominican Sisters.

In 1981, Sister Gentry entered into formation with the Adrian Dominicans, an order of more than 1,000 nuns who are based in Adrian, Mich. She spent her first year in the motherhouse serving as chaplain to the sisters in their healthcare center, and made her formal profession in 1983. Her parents’ failing health brought her back to Richmond in 1987, and her mother died afterward.

For a year, she worked as pastoral associate at St. Ann Church in Ashland, Va., and administered a small mission parish. When the chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond (now part of the Bon Secours Health System) went on sabbatical in 1989, Sister Gentry filled in for her. She loved it and would have gladly stayed had the choice been hers.

The last three months of 1991 were difficult for Sister Gentry. Her father was having problems driving, so she took him for medical evaluation. The doctor said her father would have to give up his driver’s license, and Mr. Gentry kept telling her, “I can’t take it.” On Oct. 31, a mammogram revealed that she had breast cancer. That very day, she had to take her father’s driver’s license away from him. Her surgery on Nov. 15 was successful, but her father’s heart was broken. His daughter’s life was in danger, and he had lost his independence. He developed pneumonia and died four weeks later.

Sister Gentry belonged to a mission group in South Carolina along with fellow Adrian Dominican Sister Susan Kresse. Sister Kresse, a social worker at Mercy Hospice in Myrtle Beach, was looking for somebody with the appropriate credentials to work as a bereavement counselor. Sister Gentry started work at Mercy Hospice in February of 1993.

Sister Kresse said, “It’s been wonderful having someone, another Adrian Dominican, to do community things together. It’s great having her in Myrtle Beach.”

Over the years, Sister Gentry’s job has expanded to include chaplaincy, and she and a Baptist woman now serve together as chaplains.

She said, “We minister to the patient and the family in the illness and then continue with the family in the bereavement.”

Life changed abruptly for Sister Gentry on July 8 of last year when her small car was hit broadside by a large SUV. She was hospitalized for three weeks at Myrtle Beach’s Grand Strand Medical Center, most of the time in the intensive care unit, for massive internal injuries and multiple fractures. After three additional weeks at Waccamaw Rehabilitation Center, she was able to return to the motherhouse, accompanied by a fellow Dominican. She continued rehabilitation in the same in-house healthcare center in which she had been the chaplain not that many years earlier. She spoke lovingly of the other sisters as being like a team of cheerleaders rooting for her.

Sister Gentry is gradually getting back to her work at Mercy Hospice, and she looks forward to continuing her ministry.

“Working at hospice means a lot to me. It’s such a privilege to go into people’s homes,” she said.

 She ministers to people of all faiths — and no faith. She said they generally use the time they have left to reconcile with their family and their church.

“They’re really preparing for eternal life,” she said. “We always learn from them. They give to us.”