Note: Almost 7 years ago, just three weeks after I started at the Banner, a friend of mine, Sister Natalie Cain, a Sister of St. Joseph, who lives in North Adams, Mass., told me about a story idea. Sister Ellen Therese Barry, a beloved fellow member of her order who lived in Bennington, was about to turn 90. As a result, I wrote the story and took the photo here, which ran in the Banner on Feb. 28, 2007. I greatly enjoyed talking to Sister Ellen for this article. Oddly enough, I was talking with Sister Natalie on Tuesday morning when she told me that Sister Ellen had died the night before, on Jan. 20. Sister Ellen’s funeral was set to be held at Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Church in Bennington on Friday. Donations in her memory may be sent to: The Sisters of St. Joseph and/or for a scholarship of a graduate of SacredHeart/SaintFrancis.. Send donation to Mahar Funeral Homes..
~ Mark Rondeau
MARK E. RONDEAU, Staff Writer
BENNINGTON -- If you see Sister Ellen Therese Barry today, wish her a happy 90th birthday.
This member of the Sisters of St. Joseph religious order is known to many in the area, having spent years as a teacher and principal in Catholic schools in Rutland and Bennington. She retired in 1988.
Also known as an avid sports fan, she coached girls basketball at the high school level and still is at home talking sports with the best of them.
Sister Ellen was born in Bellows Falls on Feb. 28, 1917, the daughter of Irish immigrants. She attended grammar school and high school there. She was the only girl and had three brothers.
"My mother worked, so that my brothers had to take care of me," she said. "If they played football, I did; if they played basketball, I did. Whatever they did, I did," she said.
Her family passed along a very strong faith. Every day after supper, the family would kneel and say the rosary. Upon graduating high school, she worked three years as a telephone operator in Bellows Falls and had been thinking about pursuing a religious vocation. Sisters of St. Joseph had taught her when she attended St. Charles elementary school in Bellows Falls, so joining this order seemed a natural choice. She entered a convent in Rutland in 1938.
"I just figured that’s what God wanted me to do, so I did it," she said. "I have no regrets. I’d do it all over again."
After her initial training as a nun, Sister Ellen was assigned to be a teacher.
First she taught seventh and eighth grade in Rutland at St. Peter’s and Christ the King schools. Her order assigned her to Bennington in the 1940s -- "and I’ve been here ever since," she said.
She owed her transfer to Bennington to a discipline problem in a seventh grade class at St. Francis de Sales School. It seemed no one could keep the class under control.
"They got rid of about four or five teachers, so they brought me down to see what I could do," she said. "I straightened them out in no time. I didn’t have any problem after that."
"I just felt that you have to have discipline in order to teach," she said. "So I just laid that law down the very first thing."
Sister Ellen loved teaching. "And I miss the kids. I had fun with them, too. ... I just loved them," she said.
Her superiors next assigned her to be principal at St. Francis de Sales, a post she held for 12 years. Then she moved on to Sacred Heart school, also in Bennington, where she was principal for 26 years.
A lifelong sports fan, Sister Ellen also coached girls’ basketball at Catholic High School in Bennington. In a photo she has of the team in the late 1950s, she stands next to the players in the full habit that nuns of her order wore before the Second Vatican Council changed things in the mid-1960s. The girls on the team chipped in and bought her a pair of black sneakers, she said.
"I used to pin my veil in the back, and I’d pull up my skirt, and put it up under my cincture, so when I’d go to show them how to do a step shot, you know..." she said, starting to laugh. "In those days the nuns were (not) supposed to ... do that, but boy that was right in my element."
In addition to assisting at a regular Mass at the Vermont Veterans Home, Sister Ellen also reads, plays cards, and watches football, baseball, and basketball. She is more than a casual fan.
"I’m a great Yankee fan, and that’s why I don’t have too many friends," she said with a laugh. Her favorite player is Bernie Williams.
She also roots for the Giants in football, the Bruins in hockey, and the Celtics in basketball.
"If they don’t get rid of (coach) Doc Rivers, they’ll never win a game," she said of the Celtics. "He doesn’t leave five players in long enough so that they can get organized."
On Feb. 17, friends, family, former students, and members of the Sisters of St. Joseph honored Sister Ellen with a surprise birthday party at the parish center of Sacred Heart-St. Francis de Sales.
"It was a surprise, let me tell you. I almost fainted," she said. "The hall was full. Even my doctor came."
Attendees sang "Happy Birthday" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." They gave Sister Ellen a wooden rocker and a box of memorabilia donated by the New York Yankees organization.
"I tried to get around to the tables to see the people, and I just couldn’t," she said. "Every time I made a motion people would come up and talk."
Sitting at her dining room table with balloons and gifts from the party around her, Sister Ellen radiated warmth and energy. To what would she attribute her long life?
"God’s goodness, I guess," she said. "I’m not sure."