From John 14:1-3 – “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself.”
As Sister Helen Ann Stuart entered into her last illness, she came to many of us to share, simply and in peace, that Jesus had assured her that He would care for her in this, and that she was not afraid, that her heart was not troubled. Thus, in the evening of Sunday, April 15, 2012, within the last hours of the Octave of Easter (so, technically, still on Easter Sunday!), Sister Helen Ann arrived erect and unafraid at the home long-prepared for her.
Sister Helen Ann’s earthly trek began on Thursday, May 25, 1922, in Saint Raphael, Kentucky, when she joined her older brother Marvin in the young family of Joseph Alexander and Minnie Catherine Ballard Stuart. In one month, on Sunday, June 25, 1922, she was baptized Mary Rita Stuart, on the wooded hill at Saint Raphael Church. Joseph Marvin and Mary Rita were soon joined by another brother, William Gerald, and two more sisters, Helen Marie, and Theresa Martine. To Martine and to Agnes, sister-in-law and beloved wife of Gerald, we, the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, offer our prayers and condolences.
With five children, it seems the Stuart family life was both a source of faith and prayer as well as a source of rambunctiousness. Sister Helen Ann remembers the family gathered each day for morning and evening prayers and shared a rosary each night; her “fondest memory as a small child was of Mom teaching me to pray and telling me of God’s great love for me.” A May altar graced the home each spring and her sisters and she would wander the fields to “pick flowers to adorn [Mary’s] altar.”
But the home was also surrounded by attractions for active children. They had a tree swing in their yard and they “tried to swing high enough to touch the leaves.” Mary Rita, the dare devil! They also had great ball games and “went wading in a neighbor’s pond. We younger ones had inner tubes . . . one time my tube got away from me and I almost drowned. My brother Marvin saved me. But I was afraid of the water after that.” Mary Rita was also afraid of storms and lightning, a fear that was heightened when her brother Marvin was struck by lightning. They had been working in the fields when a storm blew up and they had to run for the Model A Ford parked nearby. Sister Helen Ann recalled, “There was not enough room, so Marvin stood [outside] on the running board. Just as Dad drove into the barn, the lightning struck Marvin and knocked him unconscious. . . We all thought he was dead or dying and Father came to the barn and anointed him. But he didn’t die.”
Mary Rita began her education with Sister Agnes Catherine at Saint Alphonsus School, then completed her elementary education at Saint Raphael’s school. While in the fifth grade, she contracted rheumatic fever and missed two years of school. Her younger sister, Helen, “caught up” with her and they finished eighth grade together in 1938. Together, they begged to go to the Mount Saint Joseph Academy for high school, but their dad said it was too expensive, while their mom encouraged them. With prayer, determination, and the cooperation of the Mount Saint Joseph Academy, the two sisters prevailed. Mary Rita and Helen “worked in the Laundry (at MSJ) two days a week during the summer to pay for our tuition. And we went to high school at Mount Saint Joseph.”
Mary Rita graduated from the Academy in 1942, in the middle of World War II, and went to work at GE (General Electric) in Owensboro. It was at this time that Mary Rita first made efforts to respond to what she thought was a call to life as an Ursuline of Mount Saint Joseph; but, as she reported, her “heart acted up and I also backed out. . . guess I wasn’t as ready to enter as I thought.” Mary Rita continued to work, moving to the Chair Factory and then to Fleishman Distillery where she was promoted to bookkeeper. During this time she was beginning to think that perhaps she might be called to be a nurse with the Mercy Sisters.
Then the Holy Spirit seems to have taken a more direct hand through an “Our Lady of Fatima” pilgrimage to Saint Meinrad in Indiana. While there, Mary Rita “begged Our Lady of Fatima to ask Jesus if I really had a religious vocation. And, if so, to please give me the health and courage to enter. And Our lady of Fatima obtained a miracle for me.” Armed with that miracle of health and courage, Mary Rita then confided to her spiritual guide that she was ready to take the next step. At which point he – Father Charles Saffer – replied, “I knew the Lord would get you sooner or later.” Mary Rita agreed and let Father Saffer know that she would seek out the Mercy Sisters and become a nurse. Wisely – and perhaps a bit tersely – Father Saffer then observed, “The first time you see blood, they will pick you up off the floor. You go on to Mount Saint Joseph where you belong.” Sister Helen Ann concluded, “And so I did.”
Now, waiting only for her brother Gerald and wife-to-be Agnes to get married early in the day on February 1st, Mary Rita began her Postulancy that same afternoon in 1949; six months later, on Sunday, August 14, 1949, she became Sister Helen Ann. She began her novitiate at Maple Mount in Kentucky with her classmates Sisters Mary Modesta Coomes, Gabriella Holland, Robert Mary Kennedy, Mary Francita Russell, Eileen Marie Rueth, Mary Karen Sweatt, Rosalin Thieneman, and Mary Jacinta Tichenor. Unknown to Sister Helen Ann, she was also joining – out in Kansas – with at least three more classmates, Sisters Celine Leeker, Judith Osthoff, and Rita Redmond. To her remaining classmates – Sisters Rosalin, Celine, Judith, and Rita – we, your sisters, offer our prayers, our love, and our condolences.
Two years later, on Wednesday, August 15, 1951, Sister Helen Ann made her first profession, and went right on to Saint James School in Louisville, teaching the second grade. Here she would also celebrate her final profession in 1954. For the next thirty years, first and second grade students throughout Kentucky would benefit from Sister Helen Ann’s faith and heart and skills. She was known as a caring teacher and consulted as an expert in the Open Court method of reading instruction, a method pioneered throughout Catholic Schools in Kentucky.
While pursuing her baccalaureate and master’s degrees at Brescia College and Western Kentucky University, Sister Helen Ann also served at:
Her summers were spent tutoring young students at Saint Angela’s in Louisville and Brescia College in Owensboro. Sister Helen Ann had health issues off and on, and even spent some time managing the Curriculum Library in the Education Department at Brescia College.
Her students were her life; and Michael McGregory, one of the last students Sister Helen Ann had the privilege to teach, remembered her in a special way, when, as an eighth-grade student in 1992 preparing an essay for a Serra Club contest, he wrote:
My contact with sisters has unfortunately been limited to the earlier years of my Catholic education. I attended Saint Romuald in Hardinsburg [and] my teacher was Sister Helen Ann. She turned out to be one of the nicest people I have ever met. She always made it a point to learn about and share in our interests. She used to watch us skateboard in the parking lot and would tell us stories about when her nephews used to skate. She was always there if we got hurt or needed someone to talk to. She always told us that if we say our prayers and believe in God, then nothing is out of our reach.
When her health made further in-class work impossible, Sister Helen Ann came to Mount Saint Joseph where she became its switchboard operator. Following a 1992-1993 “Career Track Workshop for Receptionists” in Evansville and perhaps in response to this new learning, Sister Helen Ann changed how she reported her ministry in her “annals” from “Switchboard Operator” to “Hospitality.”
In 2002 in continuation of her hospitality ministry and still depending upon her miraculous gift of courage, Sister Helen Ann embraced with passion her new ministry as a member of the Powerhouse of Prayer. As her health continued to decline, she would find support and care at the foot of Jesus, in the heart of Mary, and among all who served in the Villa. And, to all you in our Health Care and Pastoral Care ministries, we thank you for your care for Sister Helen Ann and offer you our prayers and consolation.
Now, Sister Helen Ann was a poet as well as a teacher, and for an Ursuline anthology, penned this poem titled “Vocation:”
In girlhood’s youthful splendor
She heard a Voice one day
Whence came the Voice, she wondered
And what did it say?
So faintly did It whisper,
“My child, come follow Me,”
But she soon was lost in wonder
And filled with worldly glee.
Days and weeks rolled by
The world beckoned ever on
But there was a void within her heart
She could not overcome.
While kneeling in the Church one day
When the candle lights were dim
She heard the Voice within her heart,
“My child, I want you still.”
She gave her God the answer
And with candle burning bright
She advanced toward the altar
Wearing a veil of white.
As the organ softly died away
Her joy she could not hide.
When she made her Vows on Profession Day
For she was Jesus’ Bride.
And, thanks to her miracle of courage, she remained with us, and we have shared Sister Helen Ann for sixty-three years, and now we celebrate her joyous homecoming to her loving Lord.
Sister Sharon Sullivan
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph