When Ursuline Sister Barbara Jean Head was a teenager, she and her siblings took turns minding their dad’s service station while he came home for lunch. It was during her turn that she first realized the power of prayer.
“I was a shy little girl, I was afraid I couldn’t put gas in correctly,” Sister Barbara Jean said. “I prayed that no one would come. In all my years of helping, I never had a customer.”
Prayer remains a powerful part of her life, including praying to the Communion of Saints. It has kept her faith strong through 46 years as an Ursuline Sister, and now has returned her to the place where she earned her first degree, Brescia University.
She is a senior accountant at Brescia, handling internal auditing of student accounts, checking bank reconciliations, and contacting students who are delinquent in paying their bills.
Sister Barbara Jean has been a “numbers person” much of her life, first as a math teacher for 20 years, then as the community’s treasurer for 15 years. “I was on Brescia’s finance committee beginning in 1995, and Dale Cecil (Brescia’s vice president of business and finance) was on that committee as well,” she said. “I was thinking of the future, I knew I wouldn’t be treasurer forever. I thought I’d like to work with Dale.”
Sister Barbara Jean left the treasurer’s office in 2004 when she began a six-year term as a counselor on the community’s leadership team. In search of a part-time job for those six years, she checked with Cecil at Brescia.
“With her connection to Brescia, and her experience at the Mount, it looked like a perfect match,” Cecil said. “It has been.”
Since her role in leadership ended in July, Sister Barbara Jean is now serving full-time at Brescia. “When I got out of leadership, this is the place I felt I needed to be,” she said. “I like the relationship with the students, it rekindled the flame within my heart to work with the young. I loved teaching, I missed the relationship with the students.”
She has more responsibilities now, and Cecil can give her tasks that need to be done more quickly. It’s an evolving role which requires flexibility, which is one of Sister Barbara Jean’s gifts, Cecil said.
“She deals a lot with students and parents, that’s an art in itself,” Cecil said. “They aren’t always the happiest people,” because they are delinquent in paying their bills.
“One thing the Ursulines are known for is balancing money issues with mission,” Cecil said. “That gives her a unique perspective.”
Sister Barbara Jean has always liked working with numbers. “I guess because it’s black and white,” she said. “Sister Mary Leon Riney taught me math all four years of high school, she was topnotch. All my years of teaching, math was my main subject to teach.”
Her ministries have never been about the numbers, but the relationships she’s built because of them. “I got away from numbers in leadership, and what I do now is more than numbers. My outside activities are so different than numbers,” she said. One of her volunteer activities is completing tax returns for low-income people through the Owensboro-Daviess County Asset-Building Coalition. “I got into doing taxes because I wanted to help the poor,” she said. “I stress every year because I have to get recertified, but I know that I’m helping people, and I meet a lot of nice people.”
She hopes to stay at Brescia for years to come. “I’ve had five careers, I have no desire to start a sixth one.”
Growing up with the Ursulines
Sister Barbara Jean grew up in New Haven, a small central Kentucky town about 20 minutes from Elizabethtown and Bardstown. “My dad was in World War II when I was born, I was 4 months old when he saw me,” she said.
She is the third of eight children born to Cyril and Mary Cora Head, and the oldest girl. “I was always very shy. I loved to read when I was growing up, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, and biographies,” she said. Being the oldest girl, she was given much responsibility.
“I did most of the painting, and I made my own clothes in high school,” she said. “Mother said, ‘You can teach yourself to cook, but if you don’t learn to sew now, you never will.’”
Her mother was a homemaker for the children, and her dad worked seemingly all the time. First he was a self-taught shoe repairman, then ran a laundry, before eventually owning his own service station. Her parents were very faith-filled.
“They took us to Mass every morning when I was in school and we said the rosary every night,” she said. “In later years when I went back home to visit, I could hear them praying the rosary aloud every night when they went to bed.”
Sister Barbara Jean attended St. Catherine School all 12 years, and in every year but the fourth grade, she had an Ursuline Sister as a teacher.
“Sister Theresa Margaret Hite was my fifth grade teacher, she was excellent in art. She taught us to make an umbrella out of crepe paper,” Sister Barbara Jean said. “Every Saturday my girlfriend and I went to help her. Maybe she was the seed that was planted.” Sister Theresa Margaret died in 2009, after 74 years as a sister.
In the summer before her senior year, Sister Barbara Jean earned a math/science scholarship to Kentucky State College in Frankfort, a previously all-black school that had just integrated. “I had a black girl for a roommate, which I enjoyed, but only one white girl would come to my room,” she said. “I was given the opportunity to change rooms, but I thought that would be un-Christian,” she said. “It gave me a good experience of being a minority.”
Sister Barbara Jean was a popular girl at St. Catherine High School. In the early years she kept the time clock for basketball games, and in her senior year she became a cheerleader, played the lead role in the class play, was chosen as the first basketball homecoming queen, and honored as valedictorian. As she began the final semester of her senior year, the school principal, Ursuline Sister Lennora Carrico, told her she didn’t need to take shorthand because she was going to become a sister.
“I wasn’t even thinking of becoming a sister,” Sister Barbara Jean said. “I took the class anyway. But I guess that was the nudge God used.”
In the spring of that year, 1964, something kept telling her she had to try becoming a sister. “It had to be the Spirit. If I didn’t try and see, I’d never know,” she said.
She was seriously dating a young man, so when she told her mother she had some news, her mother was relieved that she wasn’t getting married. “She told me it was far away and we won’t be able to come see you,” Sister Barbara Jean said. “But they came every visiting Sunday. She was really proud, they in no way discouraged me.” Her dad’s sister had been an Ursuline, Sister Susanne Head, who was friends with Sister Philomena Cox, who taught Sister Barbara Jean in the eighth grade.
Following the Spirit
It wasn’t long after entering that she began having second thoughts. She entered in early September, but by late October, she had decided to leave. “My parents and my boyfriend were coming to visit in October. My birthday is in November, I was thinking, ‘We could have a party.’”
After that visit, three novices came to her in one day and convinced her to stay. She found out later that the novices were praying for her every day, knowing that she was having a tough time. She equates that experience with the Gospel story of Saul, who is knocked down by God on the road to Damascus as one person, and gets up another, the apostle Paul.
“I am very glad I stayed. This is where I am supposed to be and where God has called me,” she said.
When she entered the novitiate, she took the name Sister Mary Cyril, in honor of her parents, keeping it until the changes after Vatican II allowed sisters to return to their baptismal names.
Sister Barbara Jean graduated from Brescia in 1969 with a degree in math, and her first mission was teaching at Precious Blood School in Owensboro. She taught all classes to the seventh grade, and math to the fifth-eighth graders. “I really enjoyed that grade level,” she said, and she lived with several sisters during her four years there.
In 1973, Precious Blood was losing the seventh and eighth grades, so Sister Barbara Jean awaited a new assignment. Sister Annalita Lancaster was the superior at the time, and Sister Barbara Jean had just one request. “I said please do not make me a principal,” she said. But at age 27, Sister Barbara Jean was on her way to St. Andrew School in tiny Harrodsburg, Ky., to be principal and teacher.
“I taught sixth, seventh, and eighth grades all together in one classroom, and was principal,” she said. “I had no secretary that first year, and I repaired the copy machine regularly.”
She didn’t like being a principal, but she loved Harrodsburg, teaching, and the staff. She was there for nine years, and Sister Diane Marie Payne was with her the whole time, teaching first and second grades and physical education to all grades.
“She was a very good principal, the kids loved her,” Sister Diane Marie said. “She cared about the teachers, she was there if we needed help. She was concerned about the kids being excited about learning.”
Harrodsburg is the oldest city in Kentucky, in the central part of the state about 50 minutes from Lexington. The two lived in a house built in the 1700s that was once the home of Rachel Donelson, who is said to have fled out the bedroom window one night to elope with a young lawyer named Andrew Jackson, who would later become the country’s seventh president. Sister Barbara Jean’s bedroom was the same as Rachel’s.
“I teased her, ‘Are you going to escape tonight?’” Sister Diane Marie said.
After nine years, Sister Barbara Jean needed a break from being a principal, so she came back to Daviess County to teach fifth and sixth grades at St. Mary Magdalene School. “I loved those kids, but I needed a new challenge,” she said. After a year, she recalled the quote from Jeremiah, 29:11 – “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not of woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope.” Shortly after that, she learned of an opening teaching at Owensboro Catholic High School.
“I found out I loved that age most of all,” she said. “I loved relating to them, communicating back and forth.” From 1983-89, she taught freshman math, pre-algebra, college-prep algebra I and II, and pre-calculus.
One of her longtime friends in the community, Sister Jacinta Powers, said she is impressed by Sister Barbara Jean’s ability to relate to those she taught. “She is frequently approached when she is out in public, whether that is at the grocery store, a movie, etc., by someone she taught in the past and they readily want to make contact with her. These could have been people from decades ago,” Sister Jacinta said. “This speaks of the deep impression she made on them, not only as a teacher, but as someone who was interested in their lives.”
New shoes to fill
In 1989, Sister Joseph Angela Boone, who had been the community’s treasurer and business administrator for 19 years, became chancellor of the Diocese of Owensboro. Sister Mary Matthias Ward was the superior, and asked Sister Barbara Jean to pray for two weeks about becoming the treasurer.
“I’m sure I was asked to be treasurer because I was a math teacher,” she said. “There’s a big difference between mathematics and business.”
The decision was difficult for Sister Barbara Jean. “I knew when I left, I wouldn’t teach again and I didn’t want to leave Catholic High.”
She began a 15-year career as treasurer in 1989, and attended the University of Notre Dame in the summers to earn her master’s degree in business administration for not-for-profits in 1992. Sister Margaret Ann Zinselmeyer and then Sister Rita Scott helped cover the necessities in the business office while she was in school.
“I had big shoes to fill,” Sister Barbara Jean said. “Sister Joseph Angela has a photographic memory and is very intelligent. I thought, ‘How can I do this?’ I would call her and her wisdom helped me out a lot.”
For the past three years, the two have lived together in Owensboro, along with Sister Michele Morek and Sister Monica Seaton. “She’s a good cook and a good cleaner, what else can you ask?” Sister Joseph Angela said.
During Sister Barbara Jean’s tenure as treasurer, which lasted until she began in leadership in 2004, the community got a new accounting program, started preparing departmental budgets, and having audits every year. “I was able to share with the entire community all the finances. That was a tremendous step forward for all the sisters,” she said. “I was really pleased that change took place.”
Being the business administrator opened many doors for Sister Barbara Jean, introducing her to many business people and allowing her to travel. She worked as a consultant for the National Religious Retirement Office, which allowed her the opportunity to visit and learn about some cloistered communities. “I met so many wonderful people, it so broadened my world,” she said.
“The community was very supportive, the sisters were always thanking me, they appreciated what I did,” Sister Barbara Jean said. “I’ve always had the gift of flexibility, that allowed me to do the job without being so stressed.”
She was surprised when she was elected to the Council, but believes the sisters had confidence in her because of how responsible she was as treasurer.
She served on the Council from 2004-2010, and was in charge of professional development for the sisters, acted as corporation secretary, and served on the finance committee.
She was most excited during her tenure when the team talked about going from “good to great,” and encouraged the sisters to affirm the focus for the community. “Getting it in writing was really an accomplishment,” she said. “The meetings we had with employees let them know more about us.”
Ursuline Sisters from Belleville, Ill., and Paola, Kan., merged with Mount Saint Joseph during her tenure in leadership. “A highlight was when we met with the Paola Sisters’ leadership team, the Holy Spirit was so powerful,” she said. “During that meeting they decided their community needed to merge.”
Her time in leadership taught her how sincere the sisters are, that they want to do the right thing, she said. “They were trying to serve other people and deepen their relationship with God. Living in community, they wanted to show love and compassion to each other.”
She also learned her own limitations. “You can’t change people, you have to accept them as they are,” she said. “Even in leadership, you can’t solve all the problems.” She enjoyed seeing the sisters regularly, and knowing the team was trying to move the community forward.
“I know I grew inwardly, spiritually. Angela says you’re chosen because you need this. I needed to grow more spiritually,” she said. “I learned to forgive, to let go of things people might say, to be open to healing.”
Importance of family
A year ago this month, Cyril Head died at age 90, and Sister Barbara Jean still gets emotional thinking about the impact he had on her life. “He was always so honest in his business. He would let people owe him, probably until the day he died,” she said. “He was so friendly, he loved to joke with people. He worked 24/7, but he was also a volunteer fireman, and had a wrecker service, the police would call him in the middle of the night.”
Her office at Brescia is adorned with a table and two picture frames he made for her. “I have 23 things he made,” she said, including a chess board. “He taught me to be honest, to believe in God, and to enjoy other people.”
Her mother is 90 and still lives in New Haven. Sister Barbara Jean and her siblings take turns staying with their mother on the weekends.
“It’s been a joy being with her on the weekend by myself,” Sister Barbara Jean said. “She would get energized being with people, she loves being with family. She taught me what a treasure family is. She always fed people, that was her gift.”
Impact of travel
In 2003, Sister Barbara Jean took her first trip to Italy with Sister Mary Henning, to walk in the footsteps of Ursuline founder Saint Angela Merici.
“That was awesome. I really felt drawn to Angela,” she said. “Seeing where she grew up, praying before her body, it was very inspiring. My relationship with Angela has been different ever since, she’s more real to me. She always taught to esteem your sisters. We can never tell and show people we love them too much.”
During her first year in leadership, she learned of trips to Mandeville, Jamaica, the sister diocese to the Diocese of Owensboro. In October 2004, she joined Sister Jacinta and others in Jamaica, working in the medical clinic and school. “I was so touched by the joy in their eyes,” she said. “They would wait all day long at the clinic, but they didn’t complain, they sang, and their eyes were so bright.”
She and Sister Jacinta had traveled to Chile in February 1998 when Sister Jacinta was in leadership, but the people of Jamaica were much more impoverished, Sister Barbara Jean said. Over Christmas break in 2008, Sister Barbara Jean had enough frequent flyer miles to get a free ticket anywhere, so she chose to spend it with Sister Jacinta, who was then ministering full time in Jamaica.
She was especially touched on this trip by a man named Tony, who lived at the top of a mountain, but came down each day, even though both his legs were paralyzed and he had to drag them while using a walker. “He was so happy, so faith-filled and cheerful,” she said.
Those experiences deepened her desire to help the poor. She began volunteering in the pharmacy of a free clinic that has since closed, continues to help prepare a monthly meal at the Daniel Pitino Shelter in Owensboro, and does tax preparation for people who cannot afford to do so. “All these reflect a restlessness within her to reach out to others and help where her gifts match others’ needs,” Sister Jacinta said.
Sister Barbara Jean relies heavily on centering prayer. “It keeps me going every day, helps me accept whatever is happening in my life,” she said. “It helps me to grow. If I don’t do it, I become more stressful, more distracted.”
She is also a great believer in the Communion of Saints. “They are very powerful for me,” she said. The young man she dated in high school died a few years back at age 58. “I ask him for help all the time now,” she said. “I can talk to my dad anytime I want now. I ask him for help all the time. He could fix anything, so I ask him to help me fix something, then I figure it out.
“When I was treasurer, if I was having trouble balancing the books, I’d ask Sister Mary Leon for help, and within a minute I’d find my mistake,” she said. “When I go to a funeral home, I encourage people to keep talking to the person they lost.”
Sister Barbara Jean faithfully attends Ursuline Associate meetings, and sees associates as important to the future. “We have a charism to share, the associates are helping us. They can bring Angela’s mission to places we can’t because of our limited numbers,” she said. “There’s something inspiring and energizing to work with people who are not women or men religious. It enriches my life.”
On the move
Sister Barbara Jean has never ministered outside Kentucky, and Harrodsburg is the only time she has ministered outside Daviess County. “I’ve moved 12 times since I entered the convent, that’s saying something when I’ve been in the same county all but nine years,” she said. A piece of advice from her mother has helped keep her living arrangements fresh – she periodically changes the layout of her bedroom. “It’s like being in a new place,” she said.
In her spare time, she likes to walk, and still loves to read suspense novels, spiritual books, and some nonfiction. Books she’s recently completed are “The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak, and “Coming Home to Your True Self,” by Albert Haase. She also likes to watch movies, work jigsaw puzzles, and play chess. “I like to be with friends and family,” she said.
In her life filled with numbers, it’s the numbers of friends and family that mean the most.
By Dan Heckel