Born May 14, 1913, Helen Cecilia’s early years weren’t easy and the family sent Helen to a Catholic boarding school. Her rambunctious, high-spirited ways led to more than one change of school and many teachers wondered what would become of her. But inspired by the Sisters at Moreland Notre Dame, Watsonville, Helen dreamed of becoming a missionary to Congo. She never made it to Africa, but she did become a Sister of Notre Dame and would go on to teach thousands of children.
Sr. Helen died February 13, 2015 at the Mercy Care Center, at age 101, after a heart attack weakened her. But until the age of 100, she lived independently in her own apartment in San Jose–a frail but feisty Sister who welcomed visitors and saw her kitchen table as ground zero for her prayer ministry. With a votive candle burning and always, a list of names and needs, she prayed. She believed in the importance of prayer because “the world is such a mess!”
But for over four decades, she was a teacher extraordinaire! Many former students remember how she went out of her way to help them both in and out of the classroom. At one point in her career, though she had a master’s degree in history, she was told she would be teaching chemistry and math in high school. Stumped by this request, she thought “If you want me to do it God, you have to help me.” She was sent back to school to earn a second degree…this one in math and science and would go on to become a demanding math and science teacher who believed in each student’s potential.
In 1980, after 46 years of teaching, including at Sacred Heart School (San Jose), Notre Dame High School (San Jose) and Notre Dame High School (Belmont), Sr. Helen decided it was time for something different. She loved being a spiritual director at the Cenacles Retreat Center in Carmichael for three years.
A renowned baker, for decades family, former students and neighbors were the recipients of her delicious bread, cakes and cookies. The treats were one way she let people know she cared about them. Long-time friend Marlene de Nardo shares another way, “As a young Sister trying to learn the ropes, living with Sr. Helen Cecilia was refreshing! Her sense of humor made life so much more fun. I recall many evenings after work, dinner and dishes, that Sister would walk with me outside to the school yard. We talked and laughed about the day’s ups and downs while hitting a tether ball back and forth!”
Sr. Helen Cecilia remained feisty in spirit and full of humor till the end.
Please do share your memories of Sr. Helen Cecilia with us.