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Barbara’s life of service

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Barbara Petty with her favourite mini drill (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

When Barbara Petty went to Mount Saint Agnes Academy she so admired the nuns who taught at that time, she wanted to be one herself.

“I don’t think I was even 16 when I told my parents,” the 82 year old remembered. “I think a lot of girls my age wanted to be nuns. Most girls eventually grew out of it, but for me the idea persisted.”

Her parents, William and Dorothy Petty, were not particularly religious. It had been her grandmother Mary Chiappa Petty who insisted she go to the school. They were not pleased with her career choice, and there were many family arguments over it.

When Ms Petty graduated from MSA there was no way she could defy their wishes. Instead, she went to work for Eagle Airways.

She loved the work. She spent one summer working as a passenger service agent for Eagle at Heathrow Airport in London, England.

“It was wonderful,” she said.

She and several other employees lived in an attic on Money Lane in West Drayton, a few miles north of the airport.

But the job had its stresses. She remembered almost causing a labour incident at the airport.

“One day I was meeting a flight and a little old lady was coming in from Europe with all her possessions,” Ms Petty said. “She had an enormously heavy bag on the counter. She could not move it. So I put my hand on the handle to lift it down for her. One of my colleagues was close by and stopped me. She said if you had put that bag on the floor all of the porters would have walked out. They were with the union. I would have been taking a job from a porter.”

Barbara Petty working for an airline in the early 1960s (Photograph supplied)

But as much as she liked working with the airlines, she still wanted to become a nun. In her early 20s she decided it was finally time to enter a convent.

“I had the wherewithal to do it,” she said.

In 1963, she went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada to join the Sisters of Charity. Her parents were still not keen, but went with her anyway, to show their support.

“I entered with 65 other young women,” Ms Petty said. “There was a group ahead of us of another 65. There was a lot of regimentation. In those days there were lots of changes coming in religious life, but we still wore modified habits.”

The young women lived in dorm rooms.

“I was lucky enough to get a bed near a window, so I could crack it open sometimes and get some fresh air,” Ms Petty said.

At 9.30pm there was silence.

“You did not have free time to go off and do anything yourself,” she said. “You were always in lock step with the group.”

They took courses at a nearby college.

After two years, Ms Petty’s health deteriorated.

“I was suffering from migraines and ulcers,” she said.

She returned to Bermuda and put her religious training on hold. She worked for the airlines again for the next 12 or 13 years, working her way up to airport passenger supervisor with Air Canada.

Then in the late 1970s, she went back to the convent.

“By this time the novitiate was in New York, and things were very different,” she said. “The sisters were no longer wearing habits. They had also diversified into different ministries.”

Barbara Petty training to be a nun in 1963 (Photograph supplied)

As part of her training she earned a bachelor’s in human services from St John’s University in Queen’s, New York, and then a master’s in social work from Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York.

Her first ministry was at the Church of St Mark in Shoreham, Long Island, New York. She became the parish human services coordinator, directing the parish based volunteer service programme. They served 26,000 families.

After eight years, she took a job with Catholic Charities working as a clinical social worker. She ran three mental health clinics in the area including the Glendale Mental Health Clinic in Glendale, Queens, New York. The clinic was across the East River from Manhattan.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 she walked 40 minutes to work, as she sometimes did.

“It was an absolutely gorgeous day,” she said. “There was one cloud in the sky, and it was beautiful.”

Among other services, her clinic provided counselling to children in a nearby school. Many students there had parents who worked in Manhattan, Lower Manhattan or in the twin towers themselves.

“The school was situated so that many of the children that day could look out the windows and see the towers fall,” Ms Petty said.

Her clinic made sure there were social workers on hand to stay with students overnight if their parents did not come to collect them. But that was unnecessary. All students were collected, if not by their parents then by their relatives, neighbours or family friends.

“After going through all we went through all day, when I was walking home that night, I can remember walking up the avenue looking at a lot of dazed people,” Ms Petty said. “The thing that struck me most, was that directly overhead was an F-16. The air force was then monitoring the city. To look up, you would see one go one way and one go the other. It was surreal.”

Later Catholic Charities worked with the Federal Government to give out FEMA funds after the terrorism attack.

“We had people coming to us from all over the area for financial assistance,” she said.

She eventually left the Sisters of Charity.

“My mother was getting older and I knew I would eventually have to go back to Bermuda and take care of her,” Ms Petty said. “She always said she never wanted to be in a nursing home.”

She retired from social work and returned to Bermuda in 2006. Her father had died in 1991, and her mother was retired from her long-time job on the bridal desk at AS Coopers in Hamilton.

“At that time my mother was still active, but her health was beginning to decline,” Ms Petty said.

They made the best of their time together going for rides, or going out to lunch.

“My mother was always fun to be with,” Ms Petty said.

Dorothy Petty died in 2015.

Now Ms Petty is a member of St Patrick’s Church in Smith’s and starts every day with 8am mass.

“It helps put some structure in my time,” she said.

For many years she and other members of her church worked the Salvation Army soup truck bringing food to the homeless in the Pembroke area.

She also volunteered at PALS. She led two bereavement groups at the PALS office on Point Finger Road in Paget, and also regularly drove PALS patients to and from doctors appointments.

When the pandemic began last year, she stopped doing that to protect her own health.

Now she loves working on projects inside and outside her home.

“I was always kind of handy,” she said. “My father was a real Mr Fix It, and both my brothers, Richard and Stephen, were.”

Her family teased her a bit when she came home one day with a small drill.

“My brother said that looks like a toy,” she said.

But she uses it to carry out upgrades around her Gateshead Lane, Smith’s property. Recently she installed a new screen door.

“It took hours, but I did it,” she said proudly.

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Published December 15, 2021 at 8:03 am (Updated December 16, 2021 at 8:03 am)

Barbara’s life of service

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