By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

When Sister Barbara Tickner, I.H.M., who is now 75, was age 18 and deciding which religious congregation she would enter, it was a no-brainer. Born and raised in Manayunk, the daughter of Alice and Francis Tickner, she attended St. John the Baptist School, as did her sisters, Marie and Kathleen. “I was taught by the Immaculate Heart Sisters there for all 12 years,” she said.

She’d always had a sense of social justice, and had volunteered at the former Catholic Children’s Bureau in Center City as a teen. Nevertheless, she assumed her future life as a Sister, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary would be spent at Catholic schools with children not unlike those of her parish, mostly Caucasian, because that’s what most Philadelphia Catholics were.

Yes, she did have brief assignments at St. Richard Parish in South Philadelphia and back at the Catholic Children’s Bureau, but most of her assignments turned out to be in parishes with a heavy African-American population, and she has loved every minute of it.

As an eighth grade teacher she was missioned to Transfiguration of Our Lord in West Philadelphia, Gesu School in lower North Philadelphia, Immaculate Conception in Germantown and finally to Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Chester.

“I came to love the people. I got to know them, and they got to know me,” she said. “The parents backed me up on what I did in the classroom; they gave me a lot of support.”

In all, Sister Tickner has now spent about 30 years in Chester, with short time-outs for recovery from illnesses at her congregation’s Camilla Hall.

At Immaculate Heart she continued as a teacher, but also got involved in parish social ministry, especially food ministry. It started with a small food cupboard staffed by volunteers in the rectory, and it gradually grew.

In 2003, faced with the reality that most Catholics had moved away from Chester, the city’s six parishes were combined into one – St. Katharine Drexel. Immaculate Heart of Mary was no longer needed as a worship site. But the little food cupboard, still growing, was still needed. The poor were still there, and serving the poor is at the heart of Christianity. The food cupboard moved to the basement of the now-darkened Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, and Sister Tickner remained as a coordinator for the cupboard which is now an outreach ministry of St. Katharine Drexel Parish. For the hundreds of families who use it as a lifeline, especially in hard times, it is a godsend.

“I’ve grown to realize the importance of reaching out to help people,” Sister Tickner said. “I feel I’m teaching in a whole different way; seeing a need, helping to fulfill the need and working with wonderful people. I see more love for God through love for the people. I didn’t grow up knowing black people and Hispanics. I have gotten a whole new perspective.”

Working in the cupboard where the poor visit each Tuesday and Thursday is just as essential to her prayer life as morning Mass, community prayer and meditation.

“I intend to keep doing this as long as I can,” Sister Tickner said, “and I get wonderful support from my congregation.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.