The timing could not have been worse.
While on a quick trip to Belize to deliver supplies to a Catholic high school she founded near the coastal town of Dangriga, Sister of the Holy Family Judith Thérèse Barial flipped on CNN to see aerial footage of a flooded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. She knew right away that a scheduled surgery – to remove a cancerous lump in her breast – was off indefinitely.
“My surgery was to be done at Methodist Hospital in New Orleans East during the first week in September,” explained Sister Judith Thérèse, 71, who teaches algebra and AP physics at St. Mary’s Academy. “I was very distressed to know that I would not be able to have the surgery. I had already had the pre-op, and the pin had been inserted.”
As it turned out, Sister Judith Thérèse’s “Plan B” fell miraculously into place.
She contacted her biological sister, Evelyn Maria Creer, a Xavier University graduate who at that time was a microbiologist in the medical technology lab at San Francisco General Hospital. Shortly after arriving at her sister’s California home, Sister Judith Thérèse was attending Sunday Mass when one of her former St. Mary’s students spotted her during the sign of peace.
“After the Mass I found out that she actually worked in a mammogram clinic,” she said. “Through her, Dolores Hill, I was able to get an appointment with a wonderful oncology team.”
Prayer, work vital to recovery
Although Sister Judith Thérèse went on to have post-op radiation twice a day for 10 days, her particular surgery – removal of a Stage I tumor initially detected by her primary care doctor in July of 2005 – did not require chemotherapy. She has been cancer-free for seven years.
“The hardest part (of my recovery) was to not be able to be engaged in my ministry – I actually walked to the nearest junior college and offered my services to tutor math students,” Sister Judith Thérèse said.
“I spent most of every day alone because my sister worked,” she said. “My prayer is mostly that of meditating on Scripture and just resting with Jesus. I love the Acts of the Apostles, especially Acts 4, because it shows us how to actually put Jesus’ words into action. It speaks about community as a family. These are two of the most important aspects of my life – family and community. They give me the strength for my ministries.”
An avid reader, Sister Judith Thérèse also found solace in re-reading her favorite book – Richard Rohr’s “Everything Belongs” – several times during her recovery. Her deep devotion to Venerable Henriette Delille, foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family, bolstered her throughout her medical emergency and beyond.
“She inspired most of what I do,” said Sister Judith Thérèse, who wrote a play about Mother Henriette and is currently drawing a coloring book based on her and her religious community’s co-foundresses, Sister Juliette Gaudin and Sister Josephine Charles.
School flourishes in Belize
The most visible result of Sister Judith Thérèse’s educational ministry is her school in Belize – Delille Academy– which began in 1987 as a two-year program at the local Sisters of the Holy Family convent, but was eventually expanded into an accredited, four-year high school that occupies an eight-room building donated by Belizean government, and four two-room buildings donated by the United States. The only Catholic high school in Belize’s Stann Creek District, it currently enrolls nearly 600 students.
“We are currently trying to fund-raise for a chapel on the campus,” Sister Judith Thérèse said, noting that students currently must walk a mile to attend Friday Mass.
Although her maternal aunt had died of breast cancer, the disease was Sister Judith Thérèse’s first major illness. She credits her relatively easy recovery to being physically active and staying positive.
“The most important things are to do the monthly checks and to have the annual mammogram, since early detection gives a better chance for survival,” Sister Judith Thérèse notes. “If diagnosed, try to eat healthily, exercise and try your best to be at peace.”
At St. Mary’s Academy, students, teachers and administrators pray for cancer patients, family members who have died from the disease and survivors. They also take part in fund-raising walks, and begin October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month – with a rally in the gym.
“Being around young people energizes me; in my ministry, I don’t have time to think about negatives.” Sister Judith Thérèse said.
“I am at the stage in my life where each moment is a gift and I try to live in the present moment,” she adds. “My family and friends were worried about me, but I went into the surgery just open to whatever God had planned for me. I could not alter his plans, could I?”
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.