Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Credible Witness: Servant of God Gertrude Barber
By Heather King
“What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people…capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life.” Porta Fidei 15
Servant of God Gertrude Barber (1911-2000) dedicated her life to serving children and adults with intellectual disabilities and their families.
The daughter of Irish immigrants, and one, of ten children, Barber was born and bred in Erie, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Villa Maria Academy, an all-girls high school, in 1928. In 1933, inspired by an Erie school superintendent who reminded Gertrude that she didn’t have to leave the country to become a missionary, she became a full-time special education teacher.
She earned a master’s degree in psychology from Penn State University in 1945 and that same year was appointed coordinator of the special education programs in the Erie School District-a post that would involve pulling students, teachers, and parents out of what she called “the Dark Ages.”
In those days, the notion that children with special needs could stay with the family and receive education in the community was almost unheard of. Barber found the enforced separation of children and parents devastating.
Her first classes for the intellectually disabled took place at the local YMCA in 1952. Her school, originally called the Exceptional Children’s Center, after several expansions and moves over the decades became known as the Barber National Institute. Its mission is to provide services for children and adults with autism, intellectual disabilities, and behavioral health issues. Today, the Institute serves more than 7,300 individuals and employs 3,900 staff.
In 1956, she earned a doctorate in educational administration from Penn State, and later completed post-doctoral work at Syracuse University, the University of Buffalo, and Adelphi University.
She retired from the Erie School District in 1971 to devote herself full-time to developing services for the disabled, She instituted programs for infants, toddlers, and adults. She opened residential group homes and adult day services in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions.
John Barber, Dr, Barber’s nephew and current president of the Institute, observes that her “philosophy” consisted of the simple credo: “All children are welcome here.”
In 1984, she received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award from Bishop Michael J, Murphy on behalf of Saint John Paul 11, and over the years received many other prestigious civic, educational, and religious honors.
She died on April 29, 2000. That July, the ground was broken for a new school and training site.
For nearly seventy years, she had served those often overlooked by the rest of society. “Dr. Barber was the Mother Teresa of Erie,” said Monsignor Robert D. Goodill. “She saw the suffering of the exceptional children and adults of this area and used her manifest skills and, above all, her love to respond.”
Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie began her formal cause for canonization on December 12, 2019: the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Dr. Barber thus became the first layperson from Pennsylvania whose cause for canonization has been opened.
Added John Barber of his aunt: “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.”