Mass Readings: Phil. 4:7-11; John 6:37-40
First of all my deepest sympathy to the sisters of Sr. Helen, Nessa and Ronnie, her cousins especially David and Joe who faithfully drove Nessa here to visit Helen, relatives and friends, who have come all the way from Tipperary to say your goodbye to Sr. Helen.
We are gathered here this morning to allow us to see the reality that we will all die one day. We will be physically gone but our impact on others will be a living legacy for those whose lives we touched.
All of us present here have known and in some way have been touched by Helen’s faith and life. Some of you have known Helen at a much deeper level than I do. I may not fully capture the wonderful missionary life with which Helen has gifted the Congregation and especially to the people in the places she has journeyed, but I can joyfully say how much her very kind self, friendship and sincerity have touched my own life during the early part of my journey as a Postulant.
It started 21 years ago, when my Postulant Directress went to Chile as a delegate for the General Chapter, and Helen was asked to accompany me for the few months that she was away. Conversing with Helen always gave me a sense that she was interested and truly listened. One helpful challenge she gave me which I will never forget, was when I shared some difficulty with one of my companions. She gently challenged me by saying
“Anne, you have to know, why are you here – is it because of Jesus or because of the behaviour of that person?” That certainly opened my eyes and sharpened the direction of my vocation.
From Summerhill, Nenagh, County Tipperary, Helen Teresa was born on October 13, 1923. Her parents Jeremiah and Helena Ryan were also blessed with a son and 3 other girls. Her father was the Editor of Nenagh Guardian and unfortunately died when Helen was very young.
On August 1st 1944, Helen entered in Cahiracon. I am sure you remember that day Nessa, as you accompanied Helen to Cahiracon… She had her first profession on April 23, 1947 in Cahiracon and she was finally professed in Silver Creek, New York on March 19, 1952.
Helen’s first mission assignment was in Silver Creek USA where she spent a good number of years working in the junior seminary encouraging the young men who were students there. And was also very involved in fund raising.
Her next assignment which was a very joyful one for her was to the Philippines-to Malasiqui in the northern part of the country. Then she was asked to be Superior in the community in Olongapo where Srs Carmel Mongey, Mary Moylan and Sheila Crowe who are present here today were her companions. And later she was moved to Malate and San Juan communities carrying on Leadership ministry for the Area.
Helen was person orientated. She loved visiting the people in the outlying barrios of Malasiqui, accompanying the local catechists and visiting the sick and the infirm. Her gentle presence like a Good Samaritan was a key as she unreservedly reached out to people. She knew all her neighbours, their condition, their difficulties and she knew no boundaries as she reached out to everybody. And when asked if the person she was helping was a friend and relative, she would just reply:”I don’t know who he/she is but this is someone who needs help”. She had fully entered into the life and reality of the people. ”If we cannot learn and adapt and enter as fully as possible into the culture of the country in which we work, we will be unable to further the work of Christ.”
As a Filipina, I cannot help but feel so proud and grateful to Helen as she openly shared her love and appreciation of the Filipino culture.
Justice and peace were areas where Helen was very involved. As a social worker, she crossed boundaries of the different injustices and miseries all around her. She was a woman not just of words but of action. So, Helen can be found visiting the prisoners and in later life, she got very much involved in writing to prisoners on death row. Her example inspired me to do something similar.
She told me that being a pen friend to a prisoner on Death Row can be very rewarding but it can also bring with it a special problem. Life for the prisoners is hard, harder than we could possibly imagine and harder still for the prisoners who have no family support and no friends to stand by them.
A quote from Gospel of Luke was very special to Helen and for me it sums her up:
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the release to the prisoners”
In 1996, she left Philippines after spending 33 years there, to take a course on Gerontology at St. Mary’s of the Woods in the US. This was with the view of taking on a ministry in our care home in Silver Creek. There, Helen once again shared all her gifts and talents with the community and her gentle presence and caring service to the sick was very much appreciated.
In 1997, Helen celebrated her Golden Jubilee of Religious Profession in Silver Creek and from there she received a letter of congratulations marking her fifty years of dedicated religious service from the White House – President Bill Clinton and Hillary expressing appreciation of her devotion that enriched the lives of countless people she served and worked with tirelessly, tending to spiritual needs as well as fostering an atmosphere of compassion.
In 2009, Helen’s health had deteriorated somewhat. She was assigned here in Magheramore to enjoy the gentle rhythm of life in the countryside and to be able to keep in touch with and visit her sisters from time to time.
In her time in the Nursing Home, Helen never made any complaint and the nurses and carers said that she always expressed gratitude for whatever was done for her. I think this was very much part of Helen’s character. Before she entered, she stated in her letter of application that, “self is forgotten when it sees what other people suffered”
She accompanied a lot of people at every stage of their sufferings, whether in their nothingness, their poverty, their sickness, their deep hunger for justice. She understood the isolation that the prisoners on death row must have experienced. She was able to transcend all this in her life that is why only kindness, gratitude and forbearance lived in her heart until the very end. I am sure all of you agree that she was a woman of faith, integrity, no nonsense, and a real lady. One of our Sisters told me that Helen was very proud of the family coat of Arms treasured by her father and family – “DEATH RATHER THAN DISHONOR.”
The 1st reading from the Letter of Paul to the Philippians really captures the life of Helen. Her mind was filled “with everything that is true, everything that is honourable, everything that is upright and pure and the God of peace was with her”. And we all know that she passed away peacefully last Tuesday at 10:45 am.
And the Gospel St. John that we heard earlier summarizes the motto of Sr. Helen – ”Thy will be done”.
When someone we love leaves us there is always something in us that goes away, something in us will be triggered –pain, sadness, or relief that the person no longer suffers. Eventually it allows us to see the beauty and goodness of the person. Only then we will realize how much we miss her and yet we will be consoled, knowing that she is gone, to the One who is the author of life, and is forever united in God.
The purpose of our life is to know, love and serve God in this life so as to be happy with Him in the next. Helen did know God, she loved God and she served God very well.
On behalf of all the Sisters in the Congregation, the people you have accompanied, inspired and ministered to in the US and especially in the Philippines; I would like to say once again, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, SR.HELEN. You have had a long and fruitful missionary life and for this we join you in thanking God.
Sister Anne Carbon 4th September 2014 Anne is currently member of the Columban Sisters Central Leadership Team having spent many years on mission in Ayacucho, Peru.