Followers of St. Francis

Sister Barbara Vano, OSF

Portrait of Sister Barbara (Barb) Vano, OSF

“I was an adult before I realized that my ‘growing up’ years were so unusual,” says Sister Barbara (Barb) Vano, OSF, who serves as vice president for mission and ministry and director of service learning at Lourdes University, Sylvania, Ohio. “I was born in 1960 and raised in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up in an extended, wonderfully Italian family. My father died when I was an infant, and I was raised by my grandmother and aunt. So, I often tease that I’m the youngest of five but was raised as an only child. I have one brother and three sisters.” 

Barb’s grandmother didn’t speak English, so she learned to speak a dialect of Italian from a very early age. “My grandmother was a strong, faith-filled woman. I have vivid memories of her teaching me to say my prayers in Italian. I laugh [when I remember] that I was probably the only 4-year-old who could say the Apostles’ Creed in Italian,” says Sister Barb. 

Barb attended elementary school at St. Gerard Parish School and public high school in Southfield, Michigan. She enrolled in Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, earning a BA in mathematics, and then she headed to Wayne State University in Detroit for an MA in mathematics. “A dozen years later, when I was a Sister of St. Francis, I went to St. Bonaventure University for an MA in Franciscan studies,” she says. 

Not Part of the Plan

Becoming a religious sister was not on her agenda. “I still tell students that when I was in college, I was certain about three things: I wanted to teach, I didn’t feel called to marriage and family life, and I absolutely did not want to be a sister! Two out of three isn’t bad,” quips Sister Barb, who explained that her relationship with God, nevertheless, was very important to her. “It was a central part of my life—that was why I knew I would never marry. I felt like there wasn’t room for anyone else. I loved every custom and tradition of the Catholic faith, but I just couldn’t see myself being part of a big group of women. I think it sounded too much like my family,” Sister Barb says with a laugh. 

From 1981 through 1994, she taught math and computer science at the high school and college level. “For 10 of those years, I taught with the religious of the Sacred Heart, north of Detroit. They are an amazing group of educators, very mission-focused and committed to sharing with their students a strong focus on social justice and a living and active faith,” says Sister Barb. 

At the same time, she was connecting with a group of Franciscan friars at Duns Scotus College in Southfield. “I was there daily, joining the friars for prayers, meals, and volunteering with their chapel ministry and their outreach to the community. The friars taught me a love of St. Francis, the Franciscan tradition, and community life—not with words, but with the example of their daily interactions,” Sister Barb says. 

She took a break from teaching from 1990 to 1991 and volunteered at Holy Rosary Parish in Houma, Louisiana, which at that time was staffed by Franciscans friars. At this time, she began to consider her vocation. “That was the beginning of the nagging thought that maybe, just maybe, I might find a home in religious life. After all, I was doing everything that the religious did, but I was still missing something. It was becoming clear that the missing piece was community. Since that was the very facet of religious life that I had seen modeled by the friars, it made sense that I should consider Franciscan life,” says Sister Barb, who asked several of the friars to name their top three Franciscan women’s communities, and Sylvania was on each list. 

After several months of conversation and initial discernment, she asked to be accepted as a candidate there. “Mind you, I was just getting this out of my system,” she says. “I assumed that after a year or so, I would head back to my old life having put this notion to rest.” 

She never did get it out of her system and professed perpetual vows in August 2000 at Queen of Peace Chapel, located at the motherhouse in Sylvania, Ohio. 

“As a second-year novice I was missioned as the director of Helping Hands of St. Louis Soup Kitchen in East Toledo while also serving as an adjunct math instructor at Lourdes University,” says Sister Barb. 

Balancing Teaching and Service

In 1999, she left Helping Hands and became a full-time member of the math faculty at Lourdes. In 2003, she began her ministry in the IT department at Lourdes, working as a project lead. “I was also a part-time campus minister. Then in 2005, I became full-time director of campus ministry and director of service learning. In 2020, I assumed my present position,” she says. 

“I oversee and work with faculty to connect service projects to the academic content of their courses. Perhaps the largest part of my role is in the area of mission integration. I work with new employees and new students to help with orienting them to our mission and heritage as a Catholic and Franciscan university and a sponsored ministry of the Sylvania Franciscans. I also work with planning liturgies and prayers and connect our campus with a variety of community partners to put a face on the many community needs,” says Sister Barb. 

“One project that has had the greatest impact on our community is the Labre Project, which is part of a national movement named for Benedict Joseph Labre [an 18th-century Franciscan tertiary]. Students, employees, and other volunteers gather weekly to make sandwiches, dish out casseroles, and prepare other food,” she says. 

“We then head out into the community, where we serve meals out of our vehicles. But we don’t just serve food; we stay and get to know people, toss a football with the kids, and just have a regular conversation about sports or movies. Our students say, ‘The food is a vehicle to a relationship.’ Through the Labre Project, we’re able to put a face on some of our more anonymous neighbors.” 

In addition, Sister Barb has been a part of the Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs in Wisconsin, leading pilgrimages to Assisi and Rome. “These pilgrimages are a wonderful way to share the Franciscan way of living the Gospel of Jesus in our world today,” she shares. “We often underestimate the power of place. I can share countless stories about Francis, Clare, and Bonaventure, but when you are walking the streets that they walked, seeing the hills and valleys that they saw, experiencing the same sunrises and sunsets, and touching the stones they touched, everything comes alive on a deeper level and touches our spirits.” 

A quote that Sister Barb keeps before her is from Francis’ Letter to the Entire Order:  “Hold back nothing of yourself for yourself, so that he who gives himself totally to you may receive you totally.” 

“I didn’t expect that I would stay. I think it’s safe to say that I came in kicking and screaming, but I realized that this is where I am at peace,” says Sister Barb. “I think God is remarkably patient—and has a great sense of humor.” 

New call-to-action