Not many Daughters of Charity celebrate their 100th birthday. But even fewer get to celebrate it with their son!
The website of the Indianapolis diocese reports…. “During her 99 years on this earth, Gaynelle Perkins Barrett has had many titles. Daughter. Wife. Mother. Widow. And Daughter of Charity Sister Gaynelle. (Note: The titles are something she has in common with Louise and Elizabeth Ann Seton.)
This Saturday, she will celebrate her 100th birthday; and her son, Dan, wanted to share his memories of someone he is “very, very proud of.”
He tells us that she was born on March 29, 1914, in the small town of Elk Creek, Va., the first of seven children. “Being the oldest, her responsibilities were the greatest, and she was tasked to care for the rest when her mom and dad were not around. She was only 15 years old when the Great Depression hit the U.S. economy.”
The family survived by raising chickens, growing vegetables and canning for the winter time. “Faith in God, hard work, austerity and not wasting anything was the family philosophy,” he added.
Her father ran a small warehouse store in Elk Creek until the day a robber entered his store and shot him twice through the heart. Gaynelle was barely 18 at the time, and she quickly got a job as a soda jerk to help her mother pay the bills.
When she was in her mid-twenties, she began working as a checkout clerk at a Kroger’s in Charleston, W.Va. There she met her future husband, William E. “Bill” Barrett, a coal miner from Eldorado, Ill.
They discovered they shared the same birth date, and in 1940 they married on their birthday. World War II was soon underway.
After service in the Navy, Bill obtained a job in Albion, Ill., and by the mid 1950s, the family included sons Dick, Phil and Dan and daughter Anne.
Gaynelle raised her family the way she had been raised. “She taught us the value of gathering food from nature, like harvesting black walnuts for her famous banana bread and showing us how to gather wild blackberries for her famous blackberry cobbler,” Dan said. There was also a family garden, and many autumns were spent preserving that harvest for the winter months.
As the children grew, Dan watched his mother develop her “calling to serve others” as she became involved as a volunteer with the American Cancer Society and as a leader with the Girl Scouts and the 4-H.
“She loved teaching young girls in Albion how to sew, mend, darn, stitch and do needle work in general, along with gardening, canning vegetables, making jams and preserves and baking from scratch,” he remembered.
Her great-grandfather had been a Methodist minister in Virginia, and the Barrett family faithfully attended the First Methodist Church in Albion until the early 1960’s. About that time, Gaynelle and her husband began talking with one of Bill’s co-workers about the Catholic Church. He invited the Barretts to attend Mass at his parish, and soon the couple was discussing conversion to Catholicism.
They didn’t pressure Dan to join them, but after studying the catechism he decided “this is for me too. I think this is what I need.”
In the late 1960’s, with her husband’s health deteriorating, Gaynelle supplemented the family income by sewing dresses at a manufacturing garment factory in Albion. Her husband died in 1971 at the age of 56, only a few days before their fifty-seventh birthdays.
By the mid-1970s, Gaynelle was a widow with grown children. That’s when she became close with some Daughters of Charity in the area. “She began talking with them, and she was so impressed with their kindness,” Dan remembers. “She said, ‘Why can’t I do this?’”
She wanted to help people, and she decided that the best way for her to do that was to become a Daughter of Charity herself. She talked with all of her children, asking them, “Is this a good decision?”
They responded, “That would be fantastic!”
She sold her home in Albion and she sold all of her possessions. “She divided all of her assets five ways,” Dan said, “one each for her four children and one for the Daughters of Charity,” telling her children, “I want to work for the rest of my life with them.”
At the end of the 1970s, she became Sister Gaynelle, and began her “second career with her spiritual family.
“We were very, very proud of her,” Dan said. “We were always very proud of her doing this.”
And, he laughs, “we had some fun with it,” recalling times they were with their mother in public places and would call her “Mom.” She was wearing her blue and white habit, and “people would turn with a surprised look.”
She was trained by the Daughters of Charity in Evansville and Indianapolis, and then “missioned” to help the poor in the Mississippi River delta area near Charleston, Miss. From there, she did pastoral care in Birmingham, Ala., Robinson, Ill., and Huntingburg.
Dan visited Huntingburg while he was working with the U.S. Department of Defense. He was so impressed with Dubois County that he decided to retire in Southern Indiana. He now lives in Jasper and is a parishioner at Holy Family Parish there.
He says of his Mom, “she had the unique gift of humility and the ability to show understanding and compassion to those whom she served. She loved helping those in need and wherever she went, the people loved her. She finally ‘semi-retired’ at the age of 88, but still continued to sew together sleeping bags for the homeless and poor, and continued to do what she could to serve those less fortunate as long as her eyesight allowed.”
On Saturday, she will celebrate her 100th birthday with her four children, 14 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren at Seton Residence in Evansville.
Her life, Dan says, has been dedicated to raising her biological family and to serving God and humanity through her spiritual family, the Daughters of Charity.
“She has been so helpful to a lot of people, including her own family,” he said. “When we had problems, she was always there to help.”
Cards may be sent to Sister Gaynelle at Seton Residence, 9400 New Harmony Road, Evansville IN 47720-8939.
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