11 Sep She Let God Transform Her
selected by Paulette Curran
Helen entered the world under very difficult circumstances. She was born to an unwed teenage mother and, at the age of four months, she was adopted.
On the other hand, the couple who adopted her loved her, and with them, she had a basically good childhood. She was close to her father, she did well in school and in sports, and she had good friends.
Then, when she was sixteen, her world suddenly fell apart. Her beloved father died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Then this tragedy was soon followed by a second one. Helen’s mother fell into a deep depression, and just two months after the death of her husband, she committed suicide.
Helen went to live with relatives. They, too, loved her, and she became part of their family. But her grief must have been terrible.
Helen attended college, and after she graduated, she worked as a teacher in Liverpool. Somewhere along the line, she left the Church.
She was interested in helping people. She quit her job in Liverpool and moved to the south of England to work as a group parent at a school for multiply-handicapped children.
After a year, feeling that she needed more experience, she decided to go to the States, work at different schools, and travel around a bit.
Of all the schools she applied to, only one accepted her—St. Coletta’s School in Jefferson, Wisconsin. In Helen’s mind, it had one big drawback. It was run by nuns! On the other hand, it had an excellent reputation. She decided to go there.
Before she left, she visited a former teacher who told her that, “if you ever need a bed,” she had a friend—Yvonne von Drakestein—who would put her up. In Canada!
Yvonne, who brought the Grail, an international Christian women’s movement, to England, was living at Madonna House.
But in fact, Yvonne was currently in England, and Helen, at the suggestion of her teacher, went to visit her. Yvonne told her about MH and gave her a copy of Restoration. Helen looked through it and thought: “What a lot of pious rubbish! No one in their right mind would go there.”
But just the same, she kept the address—just in case she found herself needing a bed!
She left for Wisconsin and the school run by nuns. When she spoke of them later in her life, Helen had nothing but praise for those Franciscan Sisters. It was through their kindness, their introducing her to the Charismatic Renewal, and their unconditional love of the handicapped children, that Helen returned to the Church.
Helen’s visa was to expire at the end of the school year. Unsure of what to do next, she decided to make a retreat over the Easter holidays to pray about it. She wrote to Madonna House.
While waiting for a response, she suddenly became very ill. A tumour was found in her kidney and was diagnosed as cancerous. To make matters worse, she had no medical insurance and no money for treatment.
She spent four weeks in bed. The Sisters took care of her, and members of her prayer group came often to pray over her.
People also brought her books to read: Jean Vanier’s Be Not Afraid, and Catherine Doherty’s Poustinia and Gospel Without Compromise.
The praying over worked. After four weeks, the doctor found no trace of a tumour. And he could find no medical explanation for this.
The illness had done its work. Facing cancer and death, Helen came to know her sinfulness, fragility and helplessness, and her heart was opened as never before.
She discovered the Jesus Prayer and prayed it over and over: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
By the Easter break, Helen was well enough to go to Madonna House.
There, wide open to God, she experienced the Resurrection for the first time. It transformed her life.
She returned to Wisconsin, finished her semester of teaching, and went back to Madonna House, already knowing that she wanted to join.
In her first years in the apostolate, Helen was assigned to our houses in Edmonton, Alberta; Toronto, Ontario; Muskegon, Michigan, and Combermere. In Combermere, she’s used her artistic talents in the gift shop, handicraft department, and kitchen.
Catherine always believed it was good for us, and for those we serve, to be in our own culture, and in 1987 she assigned Helen to our house in Robin Hood’s Bay, England.
After just six months, she was made the director of the house, and served in that capacity for seven years.
In 1994, she returned to Combermere. She made a 30-day Ignatian retreat, and once more, her life was turned upside down.
Helen asked for and was given a sabbatical and returned to England. It was a time of pilgrimage and poustinia, of solitude and prayer. She took little money with her and trusted God to provide for her needs. She visited the holy places of England. “It was,” she said, “an incredibly graced time.’”
When she returned to Combermere, she worked in the handicraft department and spent two days a week in poustinia.
As I said before, Helen’s Ignatian retreat had transformed her life, and Ignatian spirituality resonated deep in her heart. She learned how to direct these retreats, and this became a major work for her.
At her memory night—the night in which we share stories about someone who has just died—someone asked how many of us had been on an Ignatian retreat directed by Helen. I think more than half of us raised our hands. Helen also directed retreats at a seminary.
Another work that Helen got into towards the end of her life was painting icons. She had been painting all her life, but now she painted icons of scenes in the Gospel that had formed her life.
During the last ten years of her life, while she was battling cancer, she continued to do these works between sessions of chemotherapy and when she was well enough. When she was directing a retreat, she would lend the retreatant one of her icons to pray with.
She lived and served in these and other ways, as best she could, when she could, as her cancer continued to progress.
And she chose life and joy. The Scripture quote she chose for her memorial card, Isaiah 35:1-2, was just one example of this:
Let the wilderness and the dry lands exult, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom, let it bring forth flowers like the jonquil, let it rejoice and sing for joy.
Adapted and updated from Restoration, October 1997