Sister Barbara Ann Bielenberg

As a nurse and Benedictine Sister, Sister Barbara Ann Bielenberg has sought out places where she can best integrate her work in health care with pastoral care sensibilities that are inspired by her vocation. As the Director of Mission Integration at St. Mary’s Hospital and Clearwater Valley Hospital, she has the opportunity to do just that: leverage her 42 years of nursing with coordinating spiritual care in a hospital setting.

Alternating between the hospitals’ locations in Orofino and Cottonwood, Sister Barbara Ann oversees an interfaith team of 12 chaplains, visits patients, and provides quarterly in-service days on the hospitals’ core values. She sees her primary work as helping to create an atmosphere of dignity. She knows that having patients who feel respected and cared for often begins with staff who also feel respected and esteemed.

Sister Barbara Ann’s integrated approach to health and spiritual care emerged in the early 80s when she attended a program at Gonzaga University designed to provide theological education and spiritual renewal to priests and nuns. After receiving what she calls a “spiritual update,” Sister Barbara Ann was inspired to create a parish nurse program that saw to parishioners’ both spiritual and medical needs.

Her insights to healing come from not only helping others, she has also come through a few health challenges herself. In the last couple years she has had both ankles completely rebuilt. In 1980-1981 she required some major surgeries and in early December 2011 was struck with Bell’s Palsy, a diagnosis that is similar to a stroke and required extensive therapy to regain control over the right side of her face. “It really made me think,” she says. “It was time to slow down.”

Slowing down was something new for her. As the oldest of six, she grew up on a farm in Genesee and then in Uniontown. She was educated by the Holy Names Sisters the first 8 years and then the Sisters of Notre Dame. Her parents were German immigrants and devout Catholics. Barbara Ann longed to attend high school at St. Gertrude’s Academy and had a cousin who was a sister at St. Gertrude’s. It didn’t take long for her to begin thinking about entering.

“My father had hoped that one of his children would become a priest or nun. I was very close to my dad but also realized that I truly did have a vocation.” She entered St. Gertrude’s at the age of 15 and finished high school at St. Gertrude’s Academy. She was professed on August 14, 1965.

But while she had found her path, coming of age in a religious community was still challenging. At that time, St.Gertrude’s was a convent, not a monastery, and followed a pre-Vatican II structure of organization. Sisters were more cloistered than they are now. As a novice, Sister Barbara Ann could only write her family two times during that year and receive letters twice a year. “I cried for three weeks when I left my family. It’s not easy to grow up as a teenager in a convent,” muses Sister Barbara Ann.

“But I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t belong to this Benedictine community. I can’t live without love and support, and my sisters give me that. My relationship with God wouldn’t be the same and I wouldn’t be as knowledgeable in a spiritual way without my community. We support each other in sharing our gifts with others and that makes a difference. Our community has always been about meeting the needs of the time. God has always been with us and will continue to be with us.”