Louisianians of the Year

Eight of Our Favorites Making This State Great

Tab Benoit is one of this year's Louisianians of the Year.

Cheryl Gerber Photographs

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If a state is the sum of its parts, we are pleased to announce that there are many good parts here – including these eight who have distinguished themselves during the past year. They are different in many ways, but the common denominator is that they all had a vision and the desire to excel. Louisiana benefits, and the state becomes greater – one person at a time.

Ministry to the Poor

Bernadette Barrett

Lake Providence
Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate

Mission of Hope in a town called Providence

Some might call it the luck of the Irish, but to Bernadette Barrett, landing in a remote corner of Louisiana that is long on poverty and short on economic opportunity was a gift from heaven.

For the past 10 years, home for “Sister Bernie,” as she is known to locals, has been a modest trailer in Lake Providence, a northeastern Louisiana town whose 4,000  residents mostly struggle to make ends meet. Here, the white Irish Catholic nun lives and works in a heavily black Baptist community, and she says she’s completely at home. “I feel this is where God wanted me,” she says.

It’s a long way from Dublin, Ireland, where Sister Bernie grew up in a family of 10 children and where her cousins steered her toward the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate just after she finished high school. The religious order, founded in Texas in 1893, had a “receiving house” in Galway, and that’s where Bernie started a journey that led to Louisiana.

The Sisters of the Holy Spirit initially was the brainchild of an Irish woman who had married a Texas man and inherited a small fortune when he died. The widow put her wealth to work on behalf of newly freed slaves in the region by building a church and school for their benefit, and she recruited women from Ireland to come to Texas and help.

The flow of help continued for decades, and in 1962, Sister Bernie arrived at the order’s “mother house” in San Antonio. “We trained to be teachers, and we got our degrees by degree,” she says with a laugh. In time, the sisters scattered to different areas to pursue their mission of helping black people in need.

Sister Bernie’s mission led to Louisiana, where she taught school in Crowley, Lebeau, New Roads and New Orleans. In 2002, she answered a call for sisters in Lake Providence, where she now works as a community organizer and, she hopes, a unifier.

“This community is like most of the Delta – there are private schools for whites, and the public school is predominantly black,” she says. “We work to get institutions to work together and give witness to the possibility of multiracial harmony.”

One day may find her lobbying the City Council about blighted buildings or a problem with stray dogs. At other times she’s working with economic development organizations to fund job training that can lead local youth and adults toward employment.

Although she has spent much of her career as an educator, Sister Bernie says she often feels more like a student in Lake Providence. “A lot of people up here have great faith,” she says, “and they teach me a lot.”

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