Sunday, January 19, 2020


The formal process to begin investigations concerning the possible canonization of the late DR. GERTRUDE BARBER as a saint in the Catholic Church is under way. Gertrude Barber, founder of the Barber National Institute, was a renowned Erie educator and woman of faith who dedicated her life to serving children and adults with intellectual disabilities/autism and their families.

With the opening of her cause, Dr. Barber becomes the first layperson on the list of other Pennsylvanians whose causes for canonization are currently underway. They include Sister Teresa of Jesus Lindenberg, a Carmelite sister from Allentown; our friend, Father Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit priest from Allentown; Father Demetrius Gallitzin, a diocesan priest from Altoona-Johnstown; and Father William Atkinson, an Augustian priest from Philadelphia.

The only Pennsylvania native to date to earn the designation of saint within the Catholic Church is St Katharine Drexel, a sister who founded schools for Native American and African American children, who was canonized in 2000. A Philadelphia native, St. Katharine Drexel died in 1955. Additionally, Saint John Neumann, born in what is now the Czech Republic, served as bishop of Philadelphia and was canonized in 1977. Other Pennsylvania natives whose causes are opened in other states include Sister Cornelia Connelly, founder of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and a native of Philadelphia, and Fr. John Anthony Hardon, a Jesuit priest born in Midland in Beaver County.

Dr. Barber was born in Erie in 1911, the seventh of ten children. When she was seven years old, her father died during the influenza epidemic.
Gertrude is on right
Friends and family encouraged her mother, Kate,  to place her many children in an orphanage. But she was determined to keep them all at home giving them a good education, and instilling  in them the value of serving others which she had shared with her husband. All nine of the surviving Barber children graduated high school, and five earned college degrees.
Gertrude earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Penn State University, where she continued her education and earned a master’s in psychology and doctorate in educational administration. She finished post-doctoral work at Syracuse University, the University of Buffalo, and Adelphi University.
At one time Gertrude expressed a desire to be a missionary in a foreign country, but was encouraged by a superintendent to be a missionary in her home town by becoming an advocate for children with learning and physical disabilities.
In 1933, she became a special education teacher for Erie’s school district. Ten years later, she took the position of home and school visitor for the district, and in 1945 she became the district’s coordinator of special education programs.  As a home and school visitor, part of her job was telling  parents of children with disabilities that their child could not enroll in their local school, and must either be educated at home or sent to faraway institutions.
The experience solidified her convictions to help children with disabilities in a way that kept their families as involved as possible in their lives and education.
In 1952, with a small group of parents, teachers, and volunteers, she opened a classroom for children with disabilities at a local YMCA, and continued to advocate for a more permanent space for her programs. As previously mentioned, this first classroom was the foundation of what is now the Barber National Institute.
In 1958, a former hospital used to treat polio patients was given to Dr. Barber by the City of Erie as a space for both a school for children and a program for adults with disabilities, and her programs quickly expanded. In 1962, she was appointed to President John Kennedy's White House Task Force on the Education and Rehabilitation of the Mentally Retarded, where she helped bring national awareness to the needs of children and adults with disabilities.
As the years went on, the Dr. Gertrude A. Barber Center sprouted satellite locations throughout the region. Legislation protecting the rights of children and adults with disabilities passed, and the Center became a hub for implementing new and improved methods of education and training for the disabled.
In the 1970s, Dr. Barber established local group homes for adults who had been institutionalized for their disabilities as children, the beginning of now more than 50 group homes for adults with disabilities operating in Erie County today. In the 1990s, Barber worked to turn the center into a national institute for the best research, education, training and care available for people with disabilities.
Dr. Barber died suddenly while on a trip to Florida in 2003 at the age of 87. She is remembered for her selfless, compassionate, personal, and groundbreaking care for children and adults with disabilities.

“Dr. Barber served as a model for all of us to become more giving and to see God in one another,” John Barber, nephew of Dr. Barber and president of the Barber National Institute, said at the announcement of the opening of his aunt’s cause for canonization.

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