Seventy-Five Years of Love, Compassion and Irish Wit
Sr. Thomas Julie, SND, recently celebrated her 70th year as a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, but you may be one of hundreds of students, friends, and family members who know and love her as Helen Dugan. Whether it’s Sr. Helen or Auntie Helen, Helen has spent 94 years (75 of them as a Sister of Notre Dame) caring for those around her with love, compassion, and more than a wee bit of Irish humor.
Third in a family of eight children, Helen grew up in the Mission District of San Francisco. Her father died when Helen was very young, and her mother worked long hours to support her children. Although all were school age, the elder Dugan girls cooked and cleaned and cared for the younger boys while their Mom cooked and cleaned for the Sisters at Notre Dame High School and convent to pay for the girls’ tuition. At age 19, Helen announced her decision to enter the Sisters of Notre Dame and one brother warned, “Oh, Helen…they’ll never keep you.” But, of course, keep her they did.
Although she insists that she chose teaching because she hated to cook, in truth, teaching chose Helen. Caring for children comes naturally to Helen, and being a good teacher was no doubt learned from her teachers at Notre Dame schools in San Francisco. In fact, one teacher (whom Helen discreetly chose not to name) inspired in Helen not only compassion but the art of a witty comeback. Assigned in class to draw a tree, Helen, ever the compliant student, quickly drew her tree. Marching up and down the aisles, the Sister paused to check each student’s drawing. At Helen’s desk, she stopped, aghast. “Miss Dugan, what is THAT?” To which Helen meekly replied, “A tree.” Sister roared, “It doesn’t LOOK like a tree.” Without missing a beat, Helen clarified, “Well, the wind was blowing.”
That story illustrates not only her Irish wit, but what turned out to be Helen’s key to teaching success: Sr. Helen never faulted her students for their attempts or criticized them for their mistakes. She managed her classrooms with loving kindness and good humor. There is not a student she taught that she can’t still recall. And she can even remember the birthdays of children she taught over 70 years ago.
Sr. Helen loved her 35 years teaching in Notre Dame schools, but her ministry extends far beyond those years in an elementary classroom. Since the late 1970s, Sr. Helen worked with seniors at the Notre Dame Villa Infirmary in Saratoga and John XXIII Center in San Jose. She counseled and supported them.
Since the early 2000s, Helen has volunteered as a classroom aide for Notre Dame Elementary in Belmont, spending her mornings in the primary grades, assisting the classroom teachers and working one-on-one with students. When she turned 90 in the fall of 2009, the NDE students made a poster for her, proclaiming “90 things we love about Sr. Helen.” They love her humor, her heart, her smile, her silliness, her attitude (always positive), her spirit, her faith, and clearly, her ability to listen and support not only her students but her colleagues as well.
Sr. Helen’s colleagues–-her Sisters and community members–-are equally moved by her strength, her character, and her phenomenal gift to connect with those around her. Some remark that her true ministry is the capacity for relationships. As one colleague described her, “Helen doesn’t use a computer, but she has a web of connections that rivals the world wide web.”
Another colleague writes that “Helen Dugan is one of the women that St. Julie would have counted on to help her with the children if she had lived in Cuvilly at the same time. There would not have been a single family in that town that did not know of Helen’s kindness and her ability to have a funny line to encourage people feeling blue.”
Indeed Sr. Helen’s “family” reaches far beyond the boundaries of the great Dugan clan as many other families continue to claim her as their own. But it is her Dugan heritage that is the root of her spirit and faith. She is Auntie Helen as much as she is Sr. Helen. On the occasion of her 90th birthday, her nephew eloquently reminded the gathering of more than 100 family members that Helen is the family’s spiritual anchor, and the Dugans rest easier knowing she prays for each one of them every single night. Of course, not only does she pray for those she knows, she prays for those she doesn’t know (or may have just met earlier that day!). Helen is fond of saying: “Helen’s my name, and prayin’s my game.
The heart of St. Julie truly beats within Sr. Helen Dugan, and hers is definitely as wide as the world – not just the world wide web.