The Barber Family

Saint Jerome rhetorically queried: “If the Apostles and martyrs, while still living on earth, could pray for other men, how much more do they do it after their victories? Have they less power now that they are one with Christ?”

In the same spirit we may ask, if Saint Francis Xavier in mortal life obtained the graces necessary for bringing literally millions of souls to the light and life of eternal Truth, would his powerful intercession not yield abundantly greater fruits, now that he has been engrafted into the Vine of Life Itself? As but one sampling of those fruits, we present the remarkable account of the Barber family.

The history of the Barbers in America began in 1635, when Thomas Barber, a Calvinist, fled England and settled in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Shortly after arriving in the New World, he adopted the Congregationalist religion, as did three generations of Barbers succeeding him – until one Daniel Barber. Serving in the Continental Army during the War for Independence, Daniel was discharged with injuries sustained in the Battle of Long Island – the same battle that claimed the life of a close friend John Chase. At the close of the war, Barber married his deceased friend’s widow, Chloe Chase.

When in time the couple settled into a normalized life, Daniel began to scrutinize the tenets of his inherited religion. Doubts assailed him as he prayed for guidance, which brought him to a realization that this Congregationalist creed lacked essential elements of the true Church Christ had established for men’s salvation: apostolic succession and the priesthood. Rightly, he reasoned: “A Church that was destitute of sacerdotal authority established by Christ could not be the Church of Christ.” He saw these true marks of Christ’s Church in Rome. But the prevalent spirit of anti-papism, no doubt, and a lingering obstinacy of will, hindered him from considering conversion to the “Roman Religion.”

Instead, he joined the Episcopal Church and became an Episcopalian minister. He served for a time in Schenectady, New York, where his four children were born. Later, he was assigned to a parish in Claremont, New Hampshire. (It is interesting to note that, while an Episcopalian minister, he baptized another future convert, Frances Allen, the daughter of Ethan Allen, who would become America’s first native-born nun.)

Virgil Barber

Among Daniel’s four children was Virgil Horace Barber, the central figure of our story. After an education at Dartmouth College, Virgil trod the path of his father and, in 1807, was made an Episcopalian minister. In that same year he married Jerusha Booth, a woman of diverse teaching skills. In Waterbury, Connecticut, where Virgil assumed his first pastorate, were born four of their five children – all of whom would eventually enter various religious societies of the Catholic Church.

In the year 1812, New Hampshire officially became part of the Diocese of Boston. There was minimal Catholic influence in the area, with only an occasional celebration of the Mass or some sporadic missionary work among the Indians. Yet it was during this time that Virgil’s father, Daniel Barber, again found himself questioning religious doctrines – this time, those of his newest faith, and especially the validity of his priesthood. He decided he would consult a Catholic priest on the vital matters pressing his conscience. This decision led him to the Reverend John Cheverus, the first Bishop of Boston.

“I had never seen a priest before,” said Mr. Barber of his visit. “He treated me with great candor and gave me an understanding of the principal things that separate us from the Church of Rome. He also furnished me with several books to carry home. These proved quite a treat for me and my family. They by reading soon appeared well convinced of the truths contained and wished to see a priest, but the nearest was a hundred miles distant.”

Shortly after Daniel’s meeting with Bishop Cheverus, Virgil visited his father, confiding that he too was assailed with doubts concerning the Episcopalian religion. Daniel read to Virgil from one of the books lent him by the bishop, and, upon hearing the truths of the Catholic Faith, Virgil was impelled to borrow some of the literature.

Discovering St. Francis

It was at this point in Virgil’s life that we see Divine Providence manifested preeminently through the prayers of Saint Francis Xavier. He recalls his introduction to the Apostle of the Indies:

“I had in my house a good Catholic Irish servant girl whom I often noticed using a certain prayer book. I was then a Protestant minister, but I was sincere. A happy curiosity which was undoubtedly an effect of Divine grace made me open and examine the little book which proved to be a Novena to Saint Francis Xavier. I was very much impressed with the brief life of the Saint which was contained therein, and thought I must try to get a complete life of that wonderful missionary. I acted upon this idea, and after carefully reading that life so remarkable, I had to say to myself: ‘Behold a man who lived at the very time of the Reformation, one therefore who was so close to our own time that his existence cannot be myth.’ This life being so remarkable must have excited the attention of the learned as soon as it came out in print, and was scattered everywhere. No one has contradicted it, and this would surely have been done, had the history of Saint Francis Xavier been untrue. It has, moreover, all the marks of authenticity and veracity which can be desired. How could a religion that formed such men be a mere human institution?”

Although Virgil was admittedly “sincere” as a Protestant, he knew his sincerity was only a predisposition and not a means of salvation. Saint Francis Xavier had encountered many “sincere” Buddhist and Hindu. But without abandoning their error and converting to the one true Faith, salvation could not be theirs.

Virgil’s fascination with, and admiration for, Saint Francis Xavier began to irritate his wife and fellow ministers, especially when he asserted Xavier’s “parallel could not be found in the Protestant church.” He became so devoted to this saint that he hoped to give his first-born son the name Francis Xavier. Unfortunately, his wife did not share the same enthusiasm for the great Jesuit and vetoed Virgil’s choice.

A Soul’s Unrest

In May 1816, Virgil was installed as the principal of a newly formed academy in Fairfield, New York. Meanwhile, his doubts of the Episcopalian religion continued to grow as he reflected more and more on the life of Saint Francis. He studied the Fathers and Doctors of the Church intensely, and frequently debated with his wife on points of doctrine, slowly convincing her – and himself – that the Church for which Saint Francis Xavier had lived and died was the Church that Christ had founded.

He sought out local Episcopalian authorities, hoping that they could resolve his objections against the Protestant creed. While consulting with one of his bishops, Virgil heard the sounds of a beautiful hymn emanating from a nearby Catholic Church. He turned to the bishop and asked, “Do you think that those people can be saved?” The bishop replied, “They have the old religion. Don’t you know? But they do too much, and one can be saved without so much trouble.” This pathetic reply did little to satisfy Virgil.

All peace left Barber’s soul. He could find no solace with the divines of his religion. Exasperated, he compiled a list of fourteen points, summarizing what he considered to be the major doctrinal errors of the Protestant faith. When his fellow ministers were given the opportunity to refute his petitions, none was equal to the task. It was at this point that Virgil resolved to seek the advice of Father Fenwick, the Administrator of the New York Diocese, who would later become the second Bishop of Boston. On his brief sojourn at Father Fenwick’s, he borrowed some books on Catholicism. Studying the Faith with a genuine and intense desire to find the truth, he was fully convinced that the Episcopal church was not divine.

Embracing the Faith

To better appreciate the character of Virgil Barber, it would be well for us to consider the circumstances surrounding the dilemma he was facing at the time just prior to his conversion to the Catholic Faith.

He was a rather successful Protestant parson who had material comfort and the admiration and respect of his whole congregation. Early nineteenth-century America was a passionately Protestant country, extremely antagonistic to the Catholic Faith. The anti-Catholic bigotry, perpetuated by the Know-Nothings and Freemasons, oftentimes manifesting hysterical and violent persecutions, hardly produced an atmosphere conducive to embracing the Faith. To contemplate such a conversion would take a man of great faith and courage. Virgil was just such a man.

“What shall I do, then?” he asked Father Fenwick. “First embrace the Catholic religion,” was the reply, “then go back to your Academy. Resign your situation in the Episcopal church, settle your affairs as soon as you conveniently can, and come back to New York . . . so that as soon as you arrive, you may open up a new school, which I hope will be as flourishing as the one you forsake.” Shortly thereafter, Virgil made his profession of faith and was warmly received into the Catholic communion by Father Fenwick.

Sadly, as Virgil anticipated, his whole congregation turned against him. He was dismissed as principal of the Academy and was forced to sell his property for much less than its true value, thereby causing him great financial losses. Informing Father Benedict of the ongoing persecutions by his former brethren, he was told that living arrangements had been procured for him and his family, as well as instructors for his Catholic education. Mr. Barber gratefully accepted the Administrator’s kindness, and soon the entire family set off for New York.

A Family Affair

They settled in their new home, and Virgil opened a school, as Father Fenwick had suggested. He wasted no time acquainting his family with the doctrines of his new-found Faith. Jerusha, soon convinced of Catholicism, was conditionally baptized and received into the one true Fold of Christ, along with the children. Thus began a new life of faith for this uniquely blessed family.

Virgil advanced rapidly in matters of the spirit. Aspiring to great degrees of perfection, he soon felt God calling him to dedication beyond the life of a layman. But to consider the religious vocation troubled Virgil. Not that he was in any way reluctant to serve god. On the contrary, there is nothing he desired more than to be ordained a priest of the Church. But how could such a thing be done, with a wife and five children for whom to provide? Virgil put his trust in divine Providence. For He Who inspired such holy desires, Virgil reasoned, could easily overcome any obstacles.

He consulted Jerusha about his aspirations. Blessed with rare insight, she immediately recognized God’s holy Will guiding her husband. She readily approved his wishes, though she did not know if such a thing were permissible in the Catholic Church. They sought the counsel of Father Benedict on the matter, who assured the Barbers that it was not unprecedented for married persons to forfeit the marital state and enter religious life, provided it was with the mutual consent of the spouses. The only remaining concern now was the welfare of the children.

Yet a Higher Calling

After Father Fenwick was transferred to Georgetown University, he arranged for the Barber girls to enter the Visitandine convent with their mother, where, at the proper ages, they would receive the veils of religious. Their son Samuel would continue his education with the Jesuits at the University. With these arrangements made, Virgil and Jerusha Barber terminated their married status to consecrate their lives in holy religion.

Their early years in religious life entailed many sacrifices and trials, especially for Jerusha, who became Sister Mary Augustina. Her teaching abilities and administrative skills – but primarily her unshakable faith – were of paramount import in the founding of several Visitation institution. The last of these was to be in Mobile, Alabama, where she would contract a fatal illness, and after almost two years of suffering, offered her soul to God on the Feast of the Circumcision, in 1860.

Like Son, Like Father

Virgil, after his conversion, had continued correspondence with his father, Daniel, in Claremont. While serving his novitiate with the Society of Jesus, he paid a visit to the elder Barber and brought with him a fellow convert, Father French, a Dominican priest. They stayed at the Barber home in Claremont, where Father French daily said Mass and preached a week-long mission. By the week’s end he had won seven souls for Christ, among whom were Daniel’s wife, his sister Abigail Tyler, and her daughter Rosette Tyler.

Though Daniel did not immediately enter the Church with his wife, he discontinued his service at the Episcopal church and, on November 15, 1818, preached for the last time as a minister. He opened that sermon with two challenging articles of the Catholic Faith:

“I believe in the Holy Catholic Church” — Apostles Creed

“One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.” – Saint Paul

In 1825, six years after his conversion, Daniel suffered the loss of his very pious wife. Afterwards, he lived in close association with various Jesuit houses. Although he received Minor Orders, he never sought ordination, feeling unworthy “after so many years of heresy,” as he proclaimed with repentance on his deathbed in 1834.

Father Barber, Apostle

In 1822, fittingly on the Feast of Saint Francis Xavier, Virgil Barber was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Cheverus. The bishop immediately assigned him to establish the first Catholic Church in western New Hampshire, Saint Mary’s in Claremont, and the first Catholic boys’ school in New England, Claremont Catholic Academy.

Though the Academy was short-lived, it produced some notable figures in establishing Catholicism in New England. Father James Fitton, for example, was a student and instructor at St. Mary’s; after active missionary work with Father Barber, he went on to help found Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. William Tyler, a Barber cousin, was another product from the Academy, who established a parish in Sandwich, Massachusetts, and later became the first Bishop of Hartford, Connecticut. “Old St. Mary’s,” as it is known today, and the Academy certainly left their mark on the blossoming Church in America. But, because of insufficient funds, their doors had to be closed in 1828. This deeply saddened Father Virgil, after the five years of sacrifice he had undergone in establishing them.

After the closing of the Academy, Father Barber brought his missionary skills among the Penobscot Indian tribes of Maine and Vermont. Together with Father Fitton, he helped establish several chapels and schools among the Indians. Following this brief but fruitful missionary work, he was assigned to Georgetown University as an instructor. Finally, after a two-year battle with an agonizing paralysis, Father Barber ended his days on March 28, 1847. We will let Samuel Barber tell of his father’s last hours in this vale of tears, expressed in a letter he wrote to his sisters:

Dear Mary and Abby,

No doubt my last letter made you sad enough – but earth is the land of our exile, not our home. Should we then repine when those we love are recalled from their banishment to their heavenly country? On Saturday evening our dear father received once more the last sacraments, Confession and Communion, and with a holy calm, perfectly resigned to the most holy will of God, without a struggle at about half past eight o’clock, rendered his soul to his Maker. I need not tell you to pray and procure as many prayers as possible for the repose of his soul. We know not how much he needed them; and if he does not, they will not be lost. Let us not repine or grieve immoderately for the loss, but say more fervently than ever: ‘Our Father who art in heaven!’ We have two fathers; one to pray for us, the other to shower graces upon us. Ah, my beloved Mary and Abby, such is the case as we may well hope. This hope unfolds to us a brighter country where tears and sorrow can never intrude. Adieu, . . .

The legacy left by Virgil Barber is indeed remarkable. There were twenty-two converts in all among the Barber family and relatives. Of these, thirteen entered the religious life of the Church. But this story also stands as a testimony to the compelling influence of Saint Francis Xavier and his exemplary life, and to his powerful intercession in heaven for the salvation of men’s souls. Had it not been for that pious Irish servant girl praying The Novena of Grace, it is doubtful we would have such a story to tell.