Sr. Barbara Kennedy listens to a client in 1987. (Jed Doty/Catholic Sentinel)
Sr. Barbara Kennedy listens to a client in 1987. (Jed Doty/Catholic Sentinel)
With the Nov. 24 departure of Servite Sisters Barbara Kennedy and Sarah Deeby, an era in Oregon church mental health services has ended. But the ministry they founded, the Northwest Catholic Counseling Center, is growing.

Sister Barbara, 76, has been elected to serve on the congregational leadership team for the world’s Servite women. Sister Sarah, 74, was voted in as assistant prioress of the U.S.-Jamaica Community. They will live in Omaha, home of the Servite motherhouse. It is hard for them to leave Portland, they say.

The two Servite nuns, former teachers trained in counseling, arrived in the city in 1986. Catholic Charities had halted its mental health program, and priests wanted a place to send their people who needed help. Parishes banded together to fund a program that began as itinerant, with the two women traveling from parish to parish. But confidentiality became a problem, as clients had to walk past staff and peers on the way to sessions.

So Sisters Barbara and Sarah found an office for lease across from The Grotto. The center has operated out of that space ever since. The Northwest Catholic Counseling Center serves 1,100 people per year and is on the provider list for most health insurers. It’s expanding offerings for Spanish speakers.

Their leaving does not threaten the center’s Catholic identity, they say.

“That’s part of the culture now,” Sister Barbara said.

Sister Sarah explains that the board and staff stay focused on the mission. “All people here are served with compassion, and that’s one of God’s characteristics,” she said. “I hope our staff have learned from us that they are an element of God’s compassion.”

Counselors at the center don’t proselytize. But if a client wants to talk spirituality, staff are in the know.

At one point, Sisters Barbara and Sarah lived with three or four other Servite sisters in community in Portland. But even as a twosome in recent years, they prayed the Liturgy of the Hours together every day in their simple living room.

Over the past decade, the two founders slowly passed along leadership. They say the center is in good hands with Erin Peters, executive director, plus a strong staff and an attentive board.

“They are two of the most amazing women I have ever met,” said Peters. “Their commitment to our community and compassionate service has been unwavering for 33 years.”

When Peters took the post almost a decade ago, Sisters Barbara and Sarah gave her a 1986 penny in a frame. The Servites reminded Peters and the center’s board of the lesson of the widow’s mite — those who have the least can give the most and are truly blessed by God. Peters keeps the penny in her office.

From the start, the nuns focused on the Catholic mission of the center and brought staff along with them. The founding principle was related to church social teaching: Good mental health is a right. “The opportunity to deal with your emotional problems should not be a privilege for the well-off,” said Sister Barbara.

In the 1980s, well before Obamacare, mental health was poorly funded.

“We had an idea: Regardless of your faith or finances, if we are able to give you care, we will,” said Sister Sarah.

“In a way it was a dumb idea,” said Sister Barbara, laughing at their audacity and naivete when it comes to money. But the women found a community of supporters who believe in what they do. They are proud that in 33 years they never turned anyone away if the staff had expertise to handle the problem.

Some clients paid sums like 62 cents or a dollar. One man settled up with a stack of firewood.

Even when they were the center’s administrators, the two sisters saw clients. “That was what we wanted to do all along,” Sister Barbara said.

They learned on the fly how to organize, raise money, hire staff and manage workers.

The center has a longstanding marriage preparation program, based on the idea that a good marriage is good for mental health and a struggling marriage is hard on the emotions and the mind.

“The path became clear as we walked it,” Sister Sarah said.

The skills they developed will come in handy as they now lead their religious community. They say they will miss counseling.

News of the women’s departure brought a steady stream of thanks from past clients and backers. “They have helped so many and this will be their legacy in Portland,” said center supporter Janice Stewart.

In more than three decades, the two sisters have noticed three trends in mental health.

First, people are profoundly and increasingly lonely. Sister Barbara blames mobile phone culture. “We live in bubbles,” she said.

Second, children and adolescents deal with more anxiety and depression because of more prevalent pressure to succeed and more unhealthy situations at home.

Third, a positive trend, the stigma on mental illness is lifting.

Still, the new outreach to Hispanics faces a challenge — a hesitancy in the culture to seek mental health help. The two nuns urge priests to encourage counseling.

“It has been an honor and privilege to journey with our clients and experience their courage as they work through some pretty serious issues,” said Sister Barbara.

“It is a privilege,” agreed Sister Sarah. “Especially when I worked with children and parents and helped young people to grow to the potential they are meant for.” Before she left, Sister Sarah heard from young adults she had seen when they were children.

As for the future of the center, Sister Barbara expects it will “continue to be a place of healing and hope.” Sister Sarah wants it to “keep living the mission.”