GEORGETOWN — As Southern Indiana mourns the loss of Sister Barbara Ann Zeller, community members are reflecting upon the legacy of the trailblazing leader who devoted her life to serving others.
Sister Barbara, who retired only a few days ago as president and CEO of Guerin, Inc./ Providence Self Sufficiency Ministries, died Thursday at age 73. Sister Barbara, a nun with the Sisters of Providence congregation, was the visionary behind the facility and villas in Georgetown, where she served for 25 years to provide a welcoming home for the elderly and families in need.
Kelly Hampton, chief operating officer of health services and administration at Guerin Woods, said Sister Barbara "gave a heart to Georgetown" through her ministry.
"She brought compassion through her ministry to fulfill the need to provide a home to all ages, from zero to 100," she said.
In 1994, Sister Barbara asked her five fellow Sisters in the Holy Family convent in New Albany if they would be willing to open up their home to foster children, and as they took in the foster kids, many of the children were coming back to the Sisters after they were reunited with their parents. She then became the driving force in opening Providence House, a family reunification complex focused on healing the entire family, in 1995.
Her mission continued to grow from there, and in 2004, the Guerin Woods campus for elderly living opened on the Georgetown site. The facility includes independent living, assisted living, a full-care nursing home and a memory care villa.
Sister Barbara's innovative vision of the "small home" model has given residents a family-like setting where they can feel at home and enjoy "the beauty of living," Hampton said.
"Sister [Barbara] certainly set a new standard in our longterm care industry," Hampton said. "Our model is very innovative and holistic. Sister was intent that we not have an institution, because no one dreams of living in an institution…she created small homes where the elders are known by their first names, and the setting resembles a home. Everyone really has the dignity of a private room, and the staff are encouraged to participate in relationship building and providing relationship-based care."
Cindy Richards, director of facilities at Guerin Woods, said Sister Barbara would take the time to greet each person when she entered a room.
"She would look that person in the eyes, and you knew at that point you were the only person in the world to her," she said. "And she would recall things that were important to you — never about her. Never about what she accomplished. But she would say to you, 'oh hello, it’s nice to see you, how is your mother?' Even if she hadn’t seen you in a year or two."
Hampton said those at Guerin Woods and Providence House understand that Sister Barbara was loved by more people than they will ever know, whether they are a pharmacist at the drug store, the local fire department or utility workers. Richards said if you asked for something in Sister Barbara's name, "it was going to happen" because of her reputation as a beloved community leader.
Dr. Liz England, director of child and family service at Providence House, said she is inspired by how forward-thinking Sister Barbara was when she envisioned the program in the 1990s, and she emphasized the Sister's support of adding clinical service to the family preservation program. Sister Barbara was committed to being on the cutting edge, and one of her main phrases was about constantly "evolving with the rolling horizon," she said.
England said Sister Barbara was like a mother to her, and she always provided support and acceptance.
"She was never dissatisfied with me," she said. "I’m an overachiever, and I’m constantly working to earn my status, and I never really had to earn it. She just kind of accepted me fully. I was always trying to please her, because that’s what I do...but it was so rewarding to know that it was always good enough."
Susan Gernert, who took Sister Barbara's place as president and CEO at the Georgetown campus on July 31, expressed her commitment to carrying on the late leader's legacy.
"I told Sister [Barbara] that she was leaving her legacy in competent hands, but my only fear was anything that would disappoint her, so she would always be my guiding light in every decision that I made," she said.
Diane Murphy, retired business woman and member of the Guerin Woods board, described Sister Barbara as an "amazing, amazing woman."
"She is a legend. She was such a visionary. She would come to the board with a vision and say this is how we are going to do it, this is how it will be funded. She will be greatly missed.”
Jerry Finn, executive director at the Horseshoe Foundation of Floyd County, praised Sister Barbara's contributions to the community.
"Sister Barbara was one of the kindest, smartest, and compassionate people I ever met," he said. "When she saw a need in the community, she tackled it and solved the problem. Her passing is a tremendous loss to our community."
Floyd County Democratic Party Chair Adam Dickey issued a statement on Sister Barbara's death in a press release sent to the News and Tribune, saying her "profound impact was felt throughout our region."
"Never one to seek the spotlight for herself, her mission was her passion and a true gift to our community," he said.
State Sen. Ron Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, said Sister Barbara was a "great, great friend," and he has met few others with the same caring attitude and passion for serving others.
"She was just one of those alway behind the scenes but always seen because of her spirit and her enthusiasm," he said. "You could not only see it — you could feel it."
Floyd County Commissioners' President Billy Stewart, who worked closely with Sister Barbara while serving on Georgetown Town Council, said she will be missed and always loved in the community.
"She was a force for good, always putting others first," he said in an email. "Her love for her community drove her. She could move mountains if needed to get the job done. I'm a better person for knowing her. I will always look fondly on her remembrance. While I'm sad she has passed, I'm joyful she is with the Lord. God bless her."