(Sister Helen Smith completed her tenure at Church of the Nativity in 2017. In November 2016, she was elected to the Ursuline Leadership Council, and now resides in Maple Mount, where she is also in charge of the Gift Shop.)
Over the next few years, she would serve on the leadership Council that guided their community members to study, reflect and decide that the best solution to the community’s dwindling numbers was to merge with the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. While about half of the 23 sisters from Paola moved to Kentucky, Sister Helen agreed to remain in Paola, about 45 minutes south of Kansas City, until the convent sold.
More than three years since the merger was completed in October 2008, she is still living in the huge building, along with Sister Kathleen Condry, who was superior when the merger occurred. But both of the lifelong educators are using their talents in parish ministry at the Church of the Nativity in the Kansas City suburb of Leawood.
“I’m doing sacramental preparation work with children and teens for the reception of the sacraments of reconciliation, first Eucharist and confirmation,” as well as Vacation Bible School, Sister Helen said. Sacramental preparation isn’t new to her, because she oversaw the students’ formation when she was a principal in Catholic schools.
“It’s a big pleasure to be working directly with children again,” she said. She enjoys children of all ages but is especially fond of those who are middle school age.
“I think it’s the children’s spontaneity, their ability to get excited about their faith, even if they can’t voice it that energizes me,” she said. “There’s so much wisdom and humor that comes out of their mouths. I’ve been taught a lot of things by the children with whom I’ve worked. The older students can come up with their own ideas and blow me away.”
Sister Kathleen began working at Church of the Nativity in September 2009 as pastoral minister, and asked Sister Helen to handle sacramental preparation part time in October 2010. Sister Helen was happy to be involved in parish work, but the move was bittersweet because she was replacing Peggy Schrick, who died of cancer. They had worked closely together for several years at Holy Cross Church.
“Sister Helen not only knows, but lives the Catholic faith,” said Father Francis Hund, the pastor at Nativity. “I was privileged some 25-30 years ago to prepare the homily for her profession at the Ursuline Motherhouse in Paola.I remember that I used a story about planting seeds, and that truly is what Sister Helen has done through all the years I have known her.
She plants the seeds of faith, love and joy through her creativity, her gentle presence, her wisdom and experience of teaching and leading for many, many years,” he said.“Whether it’s developing a ‘Saints Treasure Search,’ or the reconciliation service for the second-graders, or the commissioning celebration for the confirmation candidates, she uses her creativity and organization to invite the young folks into the mystery of God.”
Sister Kathleen said Sister Helen’s skills as a teacher have transferred well to parish ministry. “Several parents at Nativity have commented to me that they have learned a lot about their own faith from Sister Helen’s parent sessions, which are intended to help them prepare their children for the sacraments,” Sister Kathleen said. “I know that it’s the same winning combination she always used as a classroom teacher: she is very intentional about what she does, she is super-prepared, she drills and reviews and she makes it creative and personal. She really is an amazing teacher.”
Sister Kathleen Dueber served in leadership with Sister Helen, and is now on the leadership Council at Maple Mount. “Sister Helen is the most creative, self-giving person I’ve ever met,” Sister Kathleen said. “She doesn’t like the limelight, she’d rather be behind the scenes. She’s so creative about coming up with religious education ideas.”
Sister Helen’s other ministry remains as property manager of the convent. “We do have some guests, bills have to be paid, things need to be done,” she said. “It seemed natural when the merger happened, I was already involved in managing the property. We just didn’t think it would be this long.” She concedes the 40-45 minute drive to Leawood is not a favorite part of her day.
“All I can say is Helen makes a bad situation a whole lot better,” Sister Kathleen said. “Sometimes we don’t see each other for days because our ministries keep us up in the city on different days and nights. But when we do land here on the same evening, we are able to pick up right where we left off. I guess that’s the gift of a long-time, tried and true friendship.”
If the building sold today, Sister Helen said she would remain in her ministry at Nativity. “If there were a dire need in a parish or at the Motherhouse, I would do it,” she said.
That doesn’t surprise Sister Kathleen Dueber. “She would do anything in the world for anybody,” she said.
Growing up a Sooner
Sister Helen grew up in Bartlesville, Okla., just across the Kansas state line. It is best known as the longtime home of Phillips Petroleum Co., now ConocoPhillips.
If oil and water don’t mix, her parents proved that oil and zinc do.
“My dad (Dave Smith) was a yard foreman for the zinc plant, where the byproduct was sulphuric acid,” Sister Helen said. “He grew up on a farm in Kansas City, but followed the plant to Bartlesville after a large flood destroyed their farm land. Mom (Mary) was born in Ohio, her dad was an oil pumper, he moved his family to follow the oil wells to Oklahoma.” The couple had three children, two boys and Sister Helen their youngest.
Sister Helen met the Ursuline Sisters when she started at St. John Catholic School, which the Ursulines started in Bartlesville. “My dad was the person the sisters called when things needed to be fixed. We sometimes got to go with him and visit the sisters while he worked.” Sister Helen Hermreck, who died in March 2011, taught her to play the piano in the convent, and she got to know some of the other sisters while her mom was leading Cub Scouts in the parish hall next to the convent. “I can remember in second grade talking about becoming a sister,” Sister Helen said. “It was probably a result of all the contact I had with the sisters.”
A change of heart
Sister Helen attended Ursuline Academy, the boarding school run by the sisters in Paola. True to her word, she entered the Ursuline Sisters after graduating from the Academy in 1964. She became a novice in January 1965, and was scheduled to make her temporary vows in January 1967.
“Shortly before I made vows, it struck me, ‘Why are you here?’ That shook me up,” she said. “I had been sure all my life, and then one night in chapel it hit me, ‘What are you doing?’ Gradually, this challenge and uncertainty led me to the decision to leave.” She left in January 1967.
“I worked for a couple of years, in a hotel, the YWCA, doing food preparation and waiting tables,” Sister Helen said. She took some classes in town through Oklahoma State University, and talked to a counselor about what career path to take.
“By this time, my father was retired, so I never asked my parents for money for college,” she said. “I got a National Defense Loan and a grant, I went to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. I had always loved the idea of teaching and a teacher education degree was my goal.”
She graduated in the middle of the school year, so there were few teaching jobs available. “My brother Francis let me know about teaching jobs available on the Choctaw Indian reservation in Philadelphia, Miss., where he and his wife also worked,” Sister Helen said. “When I got there they needed a director for a new reading lab in the elementary building, so I was the director. It was a real learning experience but a valuable one.”
A black woman who looked after her brother’s child while the couple was at work brought her a letter one day because she knew it looked important, even though she didn’t know what it said. “She wanted me to read it to her. It was the first time I truly realized that there were adult people who couldn’t read,” Sister Helen said. “It brought home how important an education is in a person’s life and what an obligation I had as a teacher to do my best.”
Other observations she experienced during this first work experience was the mistreatment of minorities, and their sometimes mistreatment of each other. There was a movie house in the town that practiced segregation by offering balcony seats for one-third the price. “They knew that’s all the Indian and black children could afford,” Sister Helen said. “Things like this were real lessons to me on the evils of what we can do to each other, that everyone deserves to have dignity and a fair shake. I sometimes think that’s why I left the convent for a time. I might never have had these profound learning experiences if I hadn’t left.”
She worked with the Choctaw for five or six months, until she got a job in 1972 teaching fourth grade at Queen of the Holy Rosary in Overland Park, Kan.
In 1975, her father died at age 85. “I appreciated his sense of faith,” Sister Helen said. “He was not overt, he was just faithful. Dad drove the pastor who didn’t drive. He helped put up the crib at church for Christmas. He was that stability, that anchor,” she said. “He wasn’t a man of conversation, but he told beautiful stories. He worked into his 70s because he wanted the best for us.”
A true pen pal
Sister Helen taught at Queen of the Holy Rosary as a lay person until 1979. “Though I cherished my Ursuline relationships, leaving the community had been such a difficult thing for me to do that I said I would never consider coming back to the Ursulines without something monumental happening,” Sister Helen said. “Sister Aurelia Sullivan was a good friend of mine, she always thought I’d done the right thing in leaving. One day I got a letter from her saying, ‘Have you ever thought about coming back?’ Her change in attitude was that monumental event and I began thinking about returning, but I was concerned about my mother now that my dad was deceased. One day Mom said, ‘I’ve been thinking of moving in with your brother.’ Another barrier was removed. Then I talked to the community leadership and they told me that I would be welcomed back with open arms. They even decided I had completed the novitiate experience, and prepared a re-entry process for me instead.”
She re-entered the Ursulines on Aug. 15, 1979, still teaching at Queen of the Holy Rosary. “One spring I left as Miss Smith, and came back in the fall as Sister Helen. My students thought it was interesting,” she said. She would later tell Sister Aurelia, “I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t written that letter.”
Sister Kathleen Condry was the principal at Queen of the Holy Rosary and Father Hund was the pastor. “I enjoy liturgical planning, Father Francis and I worked together in that area,” Sister Helen said.
“She is one of the most effective teachers I have ever seen,” Sister Kathleen said.“She takes it seriously. She plans way ahead and knows exactly what she wants the students to learn –and they know exactly what she wants them to do. Her strategies combine rote learning and memorization with creative activities in such a way that the kids have fun and feel very accomplished by the end of the lesson.”
After a year of teaching as a sister, Sister Helen thought it best if she moved to another community mission experience to broaden her life in community before she made final vows. In 1981-82, she taught at St. John School in the small farming community of Greeley, Kan. “The children there were taught by dedicated teachers but didn’t have access to some of the extra educational experiences,” Sister Helen said. “They had a lot of creativity without as many avenues to express it. The families worked hard to keep their school open because they wanted their children not only to get a solid education but to grow strong in their faith. The families and their children were friendly and hard working. They found pleasure in just living life, and the children loved sports.”
Sister Helen returned to Queen of the Holy Rosary for a year in 1982 as a teacher and coordinator of religion, but in 1983 she became principal and teacher of Holy Trinity School in Paola, a small school just a stone’s throw from the convent.
“The community needed principals at the time. I said, ‘Maybe I could be a principal,’” Sister Helen said. “Holy Trinity is a small town school. There were about 105 students in the school. I added a kindergarten one of my last years there. We updated the classrooms and got them air-conditioned. We brought in computers to the classrooms. We started a school newspaper, a junior high play and a student council.”
Being in charge of a small school required Sister Helen to wear many hats. “The first year, I realized the junior high students had very little opportunity at sports participation. I decided to try and get some baseball games going with students from other small Catholic schools in the area. To do this, I became their baseball coach,” she said, which was not her greatest strength. She enlisted the help of Sister Dee Long, who was a teacher at Holy Angels School in nearby Garnett, Kan., and much more knowledgeable. “I’d do whatever Sister Dee told me to do,” Sister Helen said. “Knowing that the students needed a lot more than me as their baseball coach, the members of the school council and I began working with the Kansas State Athletics Association and gradually we developed a more formal sports program,” Sister Helen said.
In 1990, Sister Helen picked up a second job when she was elected to the leadership Council. During her eight years in leadership, the sisters went from a stipend system to salaries in their ministries. This was an important step because under the stipend system the sisters didn’t receive the income for health care and retirement costs. With an aging community population, the change needed to be made.
When she decided it was time to leave Holy Trinity in 1994, she got a call from Holy Cross, in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park. “I liked what I saw, and there was a teacher or two I knew. The secretary had children whom I’d taught,” she said. “They even put up a sign across the street that said, ‘Please come Sister Helen.’ How could I turn that down?” Holy Cross was a bigger school than Holy Trinity, close to 400 students. “I learned to broaden my administrative approach and was fortunate to have a very dedicated staff,” she said. “I really enjoyed my time at Holy Cross.”
Starting from scratch
The tiny town of Wea, not far from Paola, had a public school where the Ursuline Sisters taught until the school system closed it during consolidation in the 1960s. The parish, Queen of the Holy Rosary Wea, bought the school and operated it until closing it in 1972.
As the year 2000 approached, the parish decided it wanted to build its own school, and that it wanted Sister Helen to lead it. “I thought, ‘If you want a chance to start from the ground up, this is your chance,’” Sister Helen said.
The parish planned to open the school in the fall of 2000, but it needed a principal in place before then. Sister Helen took over as principal in January 2000, while still serving as principal at Holy Cross.
Holy Rosary opened with 100 students in pre-school through fourth grade, with an additional grade added each year. “We set modes of how we were going to operate. We wanted to keep it very Christ-centered,” Sister Helen said. “We had prayer together as a staff each morning before school. We planned various prayer services and service opportunities for the children, and school Masses were an important focus. Teachers were encouraged to be creative in doing their best for their students. If a child needed more help, we’d try to find it. If a child was advanced, we’d help find ways to challenge them.”
Jean Stump was a teacher at Holy Rosary when the school opened. “Sister Helen was a good principal, very organized, and she made sure everything ran in the best interest of the students,” Stump said. “I think she’s really welcoming, very inclusive,” Stump said. “She always thinks of little details to make people feel appreciated.”
Sister Helen left Holy Rosary in 2005. “I was looking not to be principal anymore, I just wanted to be with the children.”
In 2002, Sister Helen was elected to the leadership Council again. In 2006 she was elected as assistant superior.
“Even when we were renovating the buildings, we asked if we were going to be here,” she said. “By the time I was elected assistant, we were talking about issues of our smallness. Finally, as a community, we faced the issues directly with much advice, discussion and prayer.
The decision to merge was difficult. Some sisters had spent their whole lives within a 60-mile radius of Paola. The Paola convent was home,” Sister Helen said. “Yet, there were also many blessings in the merger,” she said. “We were blessed that the community with whom we merged is such a beautiful group and has been so welcoming.”
Sister Kathleen Dueber served in leadership with Sister Helen from 2002-2008. “She has the ability to see an issue from various perspectives,” Sister Kathleen said. “As we would talk, she’d say, ‘Maybe this will work.’ She has a good, level head on her. She came up with solutions that would work.”
Sister Helen learned in her time in leadership that “we all have a piece of the wisdom. Your faith has got to be grounded as a leader. You’ve got to have a sense of humor,” she said. “Not everyone is going to think the same way, and that’s OK.”
“My mom was a crafts person, I inherited that. I knit, enjoy crafts, enjoy making things that might brighten someone’s day,” Sister Helen said. She makes items for the Mount Saint Joseph Picnic each year.
“I love mysteries, I’ve read all the Agatha Christies,” she said. Among her favorite authors are Julie Hyzy, Carolyn Hart, Joyce and Jim LaVerne, Louise Penny, Sue Grafton, Amie and David Thurbo. She has a special fondness for the writings of the late Sister Carol Anne O’Marie, a sister of Saint Joseph of Carondelet, who raised money for the homeless shelter she ran in Oakland, Calif., by writing mystery novels that featured an older sister named Sister Mary Helen who solved crimes.
Sister Helen loved teaching history, and still enjoys visiting interesting sites and museums of many different types. She especially loves museums of American Indian culture. “The one museum I visited as a child was the Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma and that left me wanting more,” she said.
Dr. Paula Eaton has been friends with Sister Helen since 2003, and the two share many of the same interests, so they’ve become travel companions. Earlier this year they visited the site of the 1921 race riot, Jewish History Museum, and a museum of Indian artifacts, all in Tulsa, Okla.
“We also go out for lunch, I try to introduce her to new foods that she wouldn’t try if left to her own devices,” Eaton said. “She really goes out of her way to do nice things,” Eaton said. “She makes you feel important — and important to her.”
By Dan Heckel