Frail, but feisty and independent, Sr. Helen Cecilia Miller, 99 years of age [Sister is now 100] and celebrating her 80th jubilee, doesn’t venture out much these days, but she lets the world come to her. She admits that she limits the number of visitors. “I need a lot more sleep!”
Her kitchen table is ground zero for her ministry. With a votive candle burning and always, a list of names and needs, she prays. She includes many of the people in her apartment complex, which she likens to the United Nations. “I have Indians next door, and Iranians, Russians, Vietnamese.” She believes in the importance of prayer because “the world is such a mess!”
Though Sr. Helen has been a Sister for 80 years, she’s known the Notre Dame world much longer. As a 5-year-old from a troubled family she was sent 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. 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.
At one point, 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!”
It has been many years since Sister’s tether-ball days, and as she nears her 100th birthday Sr. Helen says with a laugh and a bit of spunk, “Nobody knows what old age is like ’til you get there!”