Photos courtesy of Joyce Jenkins
Clara Barnes' Eugene Catholic museum fills up part of an old garage.
Photos courtesy of Joyce Jenkins
Clara Barnes' Eugene Catholic museum fills up part of an old garage.
EUGENE — Clara Barnes lay in the hospital bed, having suffered one of many heart attacks. Family feared it would be the one that took her life. Her vital signs ebbed. A priest was called in to administer the sacrament of anointing.

As Barnes whispered to the clergyman, she called to mind her beloved hobby — painstakingly tailoring doll-sized Catholic religious habits. As she told the chaplain about her work, her blood pressure pushed back up. Medical staff, now sensing she could survive, rushed her to surgery and implanted a pacemaker.

Whether healed by sacrament, medicine or her own will, Barnes, 73, is again lovingly tending her collection of foot-tall nuns, brothers, priests and hierarchy.   
She lives near O'Hara School here and has converted part of a garage into a tiny Catholic museum. In addition to more than a dozen dolls in detailed Catholic habits, the museum includes a 130-year-old church organ and a piece of a pew from Christ the King Church in Milwaukie. There are crucifixes, statues, a vintage Catholic encyclopedia and vials of water from the River Jordan and Lourdes. Barnes' own wedding shoes are on display.     

People who visit the museum tend to bring more items to contribute — decades-old baptismal suits, a century-old wedding gown, altar server albs, a chalice. Retired Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner gave an autographed zucchetto, the skull cap worn by bishops.

Wayne Jenkins, Barnes' brother-in-law, says the Catholic doll-dressing project and the museum have been vital for her. "It's kept her alive," Jenkins says.

Sometimes she sleeps much of the day, but when shows her museum, she becomes animated.   

At age four, Barnes saw her very first nun — Holy Names Sister Margaret Irene Shipman. "I thought she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen," Barnes says. "I asked her how she made that habit." The sisters, who came to Hood River to teach religion summer school, introduced young Clara to order and beauty.  

The family moved to Eugene and the Holy Names Sisters taught at St. Mary grade school and St. Francis High, where Barnes graduated in 1957. She loved the women and paid heed to every detail of their flowing clothes.

Barnes pondered religious life, but wed in 1963. She and husband Richard moved to Eugene in 1994.

The habit-making began 16 years ago when Barnes made a replica of a Holy Names Sister for a reunion of her high school class.

"I put it in a cedar chest and I kind of forgot about it for awhile," she says. But an urge to make more habits arose.

"I found out I really enjoyed it," she says.

Barnes wanted to honor the nuns of her youth and recognize the sisters who had served in Eugene over the years. She did research on Benedictines, Sisters of Mercy, Holy Names Sisters, Corpus Christi Sisters, Sisters of St. Joseph of Newark,  Sisters of St. Joseph of Wichita, Kan., Maryknoll Sisters and the cloistered Carmelites. In her pint-sized museum, Barnes has the dolls line up in order of their arrival in the region.

Barnes pays attention to detail, getting every hem and wimple in just the right proportion.

She then turned to making male habits, completing dolls of a diocesan priest, a Benedictine monk, a Dominican, a Jesuit, a Franciscan, a Holy Cross priest and a Marist brother. After Pope John Paul's death, she made a foot-tall pope, getting white cloth from the papal tailor in Rome.  

Barnes does not wish the men and women would return to the habit. She just wants to remember the era in which she grew up.

One thing would complete her collection, she says — one of the rings Holy Names Sisters wore. The bands were engraved with the French Canadian order's initials: SNJM, for "Soeurs des Saints Noms."

Barnes' dolls have been on display at the Oregon State Fair, Catholic schools and the Lane County Historical Museum.

Her own museum is really an 18-foot-long, three-foot-deep display case. Sliding patio doors and large windows protect the wide-ranging exhibit.  

"I wanted a museum that reflects my life," Barnes says.  

The house next door is a rental. The current occupant was being kept awake by strange noises and unsettled feelings. He asked experts in paranormal activity to inspect and they came up with an answer — the ghosts in his house are stirred up because there is something powerfully spiritual nearby. When the neighbor told Barnes this story, she just nodded and smiled.

Barnes is glad to give tours, but wants people to call ahead: 541-484-1541.