Sister Helena Fischer: Embracing change as an Ursuline calling

Hearing the call

Commitment to religious life was common in Sister Helena’s extended family. She is a cousin to current Sister Fran Wilhelm, and to late Ursuline Sisters Mary Edgar Warren and Ancilla Marie Warren. Her cousin, Sister Marie Thompson, was a Sister of Mercy, and she is a cousin to Father Pat Warren and Father Jerry Calhoun.

Her thoughts about becoming a sister began in grade school, she said. “We were around the sisters so much, we knew the sisters,” she said. “My cousins who were older were sisters, I knew what religious life was. I knew that Mom and Dad respected the religious life. We considered it a gift.”

Sister Helena is joined at her silver jubilee celebration in 1986 by the members of her family who also committed to religious life. From left are Ursuline Sister Ancilla Marie Warren, Mercy Sister Marie Thompson, Father Jerry Calhoun, Ursuline Sister Mary Edgar Warren, Father Pat Warren, Sister Helena, and Ursuline Sister Fran Wilhelm.

It was during her senior year that it became clear that she should enter religious life, she said. “I talked to the retreat master, and Sister Joseph Therese Thompson, the principal, set up an appointment with the superior. My family wasn’t surprised.”

She entered as a postulant with a large class in 1960, which included several of her Academy classmates, including Sisters Julia Head, Kathleen Kaelin, Nancy Murphy, and Rose Marita.

“It helped to enter with many of my classmates,” Sister Helena said. “We were the second class to have a juniorate, to get our degrees before we began ministry. It was really a gift.

“Our days in the novitiate were busy, but because there were so many of us, we had lots of fun,” Sister Helena said. “We played volleyball, and we had a couple who were great at coming up with a play to do.”

When it was time to choose her religious name, there was already a Sister Mary Helen and a Sister Helen Marie. Although her mother went by her middle name of Audrey, her first name was Helena, so that is what Sister Helena chose.

She got her degree in French from Brescia. “They thought it was going to be instituted into elementary school, like Spanish is now,” she said. She got her second degree in education from Morehead State University, with an emphasis in linguistics. Her classmate Sister Julia attended Morehead with her. “We were a curiosity,” Sister Helena said. “That was an education to be around folks who didn’t know Catholics.

“When I left home, the hardest thing was thinking I’d never be able to return,” Sister Helena said. “The rules changed by the time I made my temporary profession, I could go home.”

A life in the classroom

Sister Helena’s first ministry in 1965 was teaching first grade at St. Ignatius School in Louisville. “It was my first time away from Owensboro, that’s when homesickness really set in,” she said. Sister Grace Simpson was her mentor that year, and Sister Germaine Osborne helped her with her lesson plans. “We were so fortunate in community to have people to help us,” she said.

In 1967, she moved to St. Francis School in Loretto, Ky., a very rural area, where she taught first grade. “One year I was teaching for the public school, I had to watch what I could say and what I couldn’t say,” she said.

This is the square Sister Helena made as part of a sisters’ quilt in 1999 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. The quilt was raffled off, but the winner donated it back to the community. It hangs in St. Angela Hall.

It was while she was at St. Francis that changes from the Second Vatican Council were being implemented. “We were having classes with a priest once a week on the changes,” Sister Helena said. “I told the superior, ‘Father wants me to be a Eucharistic minister,’ and she replied, ‘Aren’t there any men who can do it?’ I think about how times have changed and all the positions women fill today.”

In the Ursuline community, sisters were experimenting with modified dress during those years. “We changed habits three times,” she said.

Sister Helena was assistant principal her final year at St. Francis. She had completed her master’s degree to become a principal by the time she went to St. Paul School in Leitchfield, Ky., in 1971, as principal and teacher. She served with Sisters Rita Scott and Elaine Byrne, and a lay teacher, who decided they would approach teaching differently.