Sister Helena said the seven years she spent in New Mexico was her favorite ministry. “There is something different about the way the people there express their faith,” she said. “Hispanics and Indians both use music and dance. I was not accustomed to any of that. The variety, the multiculture, there were so many things I’d never been associated with. I could relate to the different nationalities here at Brescia better.”
In 2009, the parish celebrated its 75th anniversary, and Sister Helena was sent an airplane ticket to come to the celebration. “It was good to see so many things actually completed.” A picture that hangs in her office called “After the Storm” was painted by the mother of one of her students.
“I started the Christmas Eve Mass with the children. They did the readings and the little children were invited to ring the bells,” Sister Helena said. “They are still having that children’s Christmas Eve service, it overflows the church.”
It was while she was ministering in New Mexico in 1982 that her father died. “They called to tell me they’d taken him to the hospital. I got on a plane, but I got fogged in, in St. Louis,” she said. Sister Helena was able to spend the night there with Sister Mary McDermott’s family, but her father died before she got home.
In 1987, Brescia President Sister Ruth Gehres kept asking Sister Helena when she was coming back to Kentucky. “After seven years, I knew Mom was getting older, and I should come home,” Sister Helena said. “I knew Sister Alfreda was close to retiring as registrar. I told Sister Ruth I knew once I got out of elementary education, I’d never come back, because things change too much.”
Once she was back at Brescia, she spent the 1990s as chairwoman of the annual Mount Saint Joseph Picnic, which benefits the retired Ursuline Sisters. “Someone asked me to be in charge and I said yes,” she said. She asked her brother Sylvester to bring the burgoo cooking team from St. Martin Parish to help, and they’ve been cooking the burgoo ever since.
“My brother said he thought it was going to be just for one year,” she said. She has siblings who continue to work in different booths at the picnic. “It helped that I had a brother or sister in almost every parish. I always look back at all the people who help and who made suggestions,” she said. These days she runs the Information booth and oversees the raffle drawing.
Sister Rose Marita said she was “deeply inspired” by Sister Helena’s leadership of the picnic, and called her “marvelously dependable” in however she is asked to serve. “The months of August and September are critical to (both registrar and the picnic) and Sister Helena gave her mind, body, and heart to both,” Sister Rose Marita said. “Her commitment to wherever she brings her ‘yes’ is firm.”
In June 2004, Sister Helena’s mother died at age 93 — 17 years after Sister Helena came home to be closer to her. “My mom taught us all to embroider, it’s where I got my love of crafts,” she said. “Mom was very strong, she worked hard all her life. She knew how to endure everything day to day. Toward the end of her life I’d say, ‘How are you doing?’ and she’d say ‘The best that I can.’”
Sister Helena and her sisters visited their mother at the nursing home on Sundays and played cards with her. “We got in such a habit, my sisters and I still play cards on Sunday afternoon,” she said.
Her favorite things to do in her spare time are play cards, such as Pedro or Hand and Foot, and to read novels by Tony Hillerman, who writes about New Mexico. She still does needlepoint, and is one of the sisters who contributed a block to the 125th anniversary quilt of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph in 1999.
Sister Rose Jean said Sister Helena is a “whiz at Sudoku puzzles,” enjoys going boating and swimming, and visiting the Derby Dinner Playhouse in Louisville as an activity with her family.
Sister Helena said she doesn’t know what will be next for her, she just knows change will continue to come, and as an Ursuline Sister, she must adapt.
“That’s our challenge no matter what our ministry is.”
By Dan Heckel