This is a monthly feature focused on “gems” in the Sea Coast Echo’s circulation area. This feature appears the first Wednesday of each month.
Brother Lee Barker passed away on March 26th. It was my great pleasure to spend time reminiscing with Brother Lee recently and writing his Gem article before he passed. While the recognition of Brother Lee as a Gem is well-deserved, earthly rewards were never the pursuit of this Brother of the Sacred Heart, rather, he lived a life based on the promise of rewards “out of this world.”
Drive by St. Stanislaus on South Beach Blvd and your eye is attracted to the modern building flanked by shuttered historic brick buildings. For those who don’t remember the original front building of St. Stanislaus, a photograph of the building can be found online at the Hancock County Historical Society website. The 1903 architecture exudes the heart of the place; dignified, solid, and serious.
Then, imagine the faculty moving through the building - stoic Brothers of the Sacred Heart dressed in ankle-length black cassocks, also dignified, solid, and serious. It was a place to learn academics, boundaries, and, most importantly, character. The eyes of the brothers seemed to be always watching, precursors to today’s omnipresent security cameras.
After committing even a minor infraction in the school yard, one’s heart would stop upon finding a brother mere feet behind glaring down at you. Some glares were more heart-stopping than others and this month’s Gem had a long stern face that put the fear of, well, it put the fear of Brother Lee in you. My fifth grade memory of Brother Lee Barker from 1968 and the Brother Lee of today could not be any more different.
The disciplinarian who instilled fear in young students has become the beloved magician spreading smiles on people of all ages. Just as magical as his tricks, his narration of his journey through life evokes a magical mystique of times long gone, of life accelerated, when maturity came at a younger age.
“I was born in Thibodaux, the hometown of Nicholls State, what we call ‘Harvard on the Bayou,’’’ Brother Lee said. “There were only 11 classes in school in those days and so I graduated at sixteen, went to Loyola for a year, and at seventeen I entered the Brothers of the Sacred Heart in Metuchen, New Jersey. I long admired the brothers who taught me. They were really outstanding men, so I said, ‘I’m going to give it a try.’”
Brother Lee talks through the early years as fast as autumn leaves falling in a strong wind. From New Jersey to Mobile for classes; teaching at St. Luke’s in the Bronx in 1949; teaching sixth grade at St. Stanislaus in 1950; Alexandria, La as football, basketball, and baseball coach; teacher, and athletic director; back to Metuchen, and then to a prestigious assignment, Rome. The initial awe of Rome was tempered somewhat with a humorous realization of the standing of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart compared to the Jesuits.
“You can tell how influential a religious order is by the proximity of their Generalate to the Vatican,” Brother Lee said. “The Jesuits are across the street. It took me 55 minutes to walk from our Generalate to get to St. Peter’s! But, I enjoyed the spiritual renewal year and I visited all over.”
Upon returning to the U.S., Brother Lee was assigned to Daphne, Alabama for five years as the director of young men preparing to become brothers. “It was a pleasure working with them because these were highly motivated young men,” as evidenced by their success,” he said. “One became the superior general, one an assistant general, and all of them became provincials.”
Then it was on to three years at St. Aloysius, adjacent to the French Quarter, before finally arriving back at St. Stanislaus in 1966, this time as principal for 10 years. Soon after assuming the position of principal, Brother Lee learned there were only two black students registered, a fact he was determined to change. St. Augustine Seminary was running a high school for only thirty two students, all black as per the school’s charter. Brother Lee saw an opportunity to benefit both religious orders.
“I went to the rector of the seminary, and said, ‘I have a deal to offer you. I’ll take all of your seminarians at Stanislaus for free if you also send four teachers,” Brother Lee said. “Two of those teachers became bishops, Terry Steib and Lenny Olivier. So, the Society of the Divine Word helped us greatly because we were two years ahead of integrating here in Bay St. Louis.”
Brother Lee was also presiding over the school when Hurricane Camille hit.
“I spent that Sunday taping up windows in the building that faced the water. Camille knocked those windows in,” he said.
The damage to the school was so extensive that reopening for that school year was in doubt, however briefly, until the day after the storm.
“A contractor had just completed the work of enlarging Brother Martin School in New Orleans on Friday. Camille hit Sunday evening. On Monday afternoon, the contractor was here with our provincial,” Brother Lee said. “They put us together again, and we opened school 32 days after the storm. Now, some of our alumni were in favor of us repairing that building, but they didn’t have to teach in it. It was not air conditioned or centrally heated. I was in favor of replacing that building. It was time. We had two contractors, one of whom was in charge of the architectural program at Tulane. We traveled and looked at different schools, good schools, around the country in planning this school. So, this school incorporated ideas from some of the best schools.”
The city utilities also upgraded through the years.
“When I first came we had a lot of boarders,” Brother Lee said.“When it came to shower time, we would call the water department and they would turn up the water pressure so we would have enough water for showers. That was unique.”
After ten years of being principal, Brother Lee was elected provincial in charge of placing brothers to schools and missions.
“As provincial I assigned 132 brothers to five schools in the US and to our missions in Uganda, Lesotho, South Africa, Germany, and England,” he said. “I also went to Rome three times to our Generalate. So, I did a lot of traveling in those six years because I met with every brother I assigned.”
Brother Lee was then asked to be a vocation director, a harder job than it sounds. “My plan was to go to college campuses, to the Catholic Student Union, and talk about church ministry, priesthood, brotherhood, and sisterhood. I felt that my audience, if not hostile, would at least be indifferent,” Brother Lee said. “I needed an ice breaker. So, in 1982, I learned magic. When I went to visit the college campuses, they said, ‘Oh, hi, Brother Lee. Come on in. Show us some magic.’”
Brother Lee said he started a magic club at St. Stanislaus 32-years ago and 22-years ago at McGill-Toolen High School in Mobile.
“Students in the club come with me and we do shows at the Little Sisters of the Poor Residence, McDonald House, several low income apartments, and nursing homes,” Brother Lee said. “I get teenagers to give up a Saturday afternoon to come with me and entertain the elderly, the needy, and the poor. I’m so blessed.”
Brother Lee’s passions of guiding youth and performing magic are a perfect match with Camp Stanislaus. He began working at the summer camp in 1951 and has served a total of 48 years in positions such as head counselor, rifle range instructor, bus driver, water ski instructor, and later as Camp Magician.
“Begin to set goals in life in high school. Determine what gifts you have that you would be happy using either in the business world, or reaching out to help others as a brother or sister,” Brother Lee said. “Keep your options open. The rewards that Jesus gives may not be great in this world, but they’re out of this world.”
Brother Lee revels in spreading joy through magic, a much different persona than the stern disciplinarian described earlier.
Brother Lee explained the role he played as, “Well, it served a purpose. It was not permanent.”
Neither was corporal punishment. Whippings with a leather strap are now only stories old alumni tell young St. Stanislaus students.
Brother Lee speaks frankly of those days.
“I had students say thank you (after a whipping),” he said. “They knew that was a possible consequence but now the consequences have changed. Hopefully, they’re still productive. But it was time to move away from corporal punishment.”
No matter how former students remember Brother Lee; the personal mentor, the vocation counselor, the principal, the magician, or any of the other numerous roles he’s assumed, every student who came into contact with him most probably remembers him.
“I have given witness to about 25,000 young people as to who I am. I’m still at it,” Brother Lee said.
If you would like to nominate someone to be a Gem, contact Bill Currie at email@example.com.