Bringing the love of God to people everywhere
Sr Helen Armstrong is adamant she would never have had such a “fascinating life” if she hadn’t been a member of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (OLSH).
Her vocation has taken her to places such as the Tiwi Islands, the Philippines and South Africa where she has immersed herself in the local culture and followed her order’s motto of ‘may the Sacred Heart of Jesus be everywhere loved’.
Sr Helen has taught at OLSH schools in Melbourne, Sydney, Darwin and Bathurst Island, studied spirituality and formation in the United States, supervised novices in Manila, and raised funds and coordinated a program for orphans and vulnerable children in Limpopo, South Africa. Her latest ministry is providing pastoral care in the parish of Henley Beach.
“When I look back, I think what an extraordinary life I have had and what wonderful opportunities I’ve been given,” Sr Helen, 75, said.
“There’s no way I would have been able to do it all if I wasn’t a Religious, I wouldn’t have had the freedom or the resources to do it.”
Sr Helen said while there may have been times when “things were difficult” she never had any doubts.
“I always felt that this is where I should be, I’ve loved our charism – God loves you and wants you to respond in love to others – it’s been the driving force of my whole life.”
Her long association with the Daughters of OLSH began as a child growing up in Maroubra Beach in Sydney where she was educated by the Sisters at St Michael’s, Daceyville, followed by Our Lady of the Sacred Heart College at Kensington.
“When I was in high school I was inspired and moved by the dedication of a couple of the Sisters in the school,” Sr Helen recalled.
“I suppose that sparked off something in me and I felt like God was calling me. At the beginning of each school year we had farewell to the girls from the previous year who were entering (the convent) and that ignited something again.”
On the home front, her father was a lapsed Catholic but her mother, who only converted to Catholicism 10 days before she died, made sure her twin daughters and son said their prayers and went to Mass.
“My parents were married in the sacristy because they couldn’t wed inside a church, but my mother took seriously the promise she made to raise her children Catholic,” Sr Helen said.
“She wasn’t bitter, and she loved the nuns.”
With her father insisting she go to teachers’ college for a year before entering the convent, Helen was 19 when she joined the OLSH novitiate at Burradoo, in the southern highlands of NSW.
Her memories are of a beautiful place where, in full habit, the novices would play sport, garden and “do everything”.
In January 1968, she made her first profession and moved to Kensington in Sydney where she undertook further studies in scripture and theology with Religious from other orders.
After upgrading her teacher training qualification, Sr Helen taught at a parish primary school in Melbourne and a year later was sent to Darwin to teach at St Mary’s Catholic School.
Sr Helen said going to Darwin was “like being set free”.
“It was a wonderful experience…there were a lot of Aboriginal children in the school, it really broadened you,” she said.
Her next posting was even more of an eye-opener – teaching Tiwi children at an OLSH school on Bathurst Island.
The families of her students gave her a totem and called her by her Aboriginal name because ‘Helen’ was too close to ‘Alan’, the name of a deceased elder.
She had two 12 month stints on the island, in between teaching in Sydney and Darwin, and loved the experience but she admitted being shocked when she first arrived and saw people living on the beach in tin shacks.
Her next big adventure came when an American Jesuit who had been in Australia invited some of the OLSH Sisters to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
It was her first time out of Australia and she made the most of the opportunity by travelling all over America with another Sister by Greyhound bus.
After a “wonderful” 21/2 years Sr Helen went to the Philippines where she was in charge of formation of novices in Manila.
“The Filipinos were lovely people,” she said. “Extraordinarily happy yet poor … and very hard-working.”
Returning to Australia, she took on the role of principal of St Mary’s in Darwin.
Her life took a very different turn in 2009 when she agreed to go to Limpopo Province in South Africa to work for the Diocese of Tzaneen which was established by the Irish province of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in 1950.
As development officer and director of orphans and vulnerable children programs, she coordinated projects that involved assisting more than 1000 children in eight parishes with school uniforms, books, food parcels and monitoring of health, particularly for those children requiring medication for HIV AIDS.
Sr Helen said many children were orphaned because their parents had died of AIDS or were vulnerable because of the high incidence of sexual and physical abuse and neglect.
Initially involved with sourcing significant funding for the projects, Sr Helen then had responsibility for supervising and monitoring local carers, while also assisting another Sister to run a project that trained girls to sew and set up cottage industries in their villages.
The Sisters also ran a program for young adults providing tuition fees, accommodation, clothing and other items while they completed secondary or tertiary studies.
“It was very demanding and some days you’d feel like you’d been wrung out like a dish rag,” Sr Helen said.
“But we had a lot of fun, and I made some really nice friends…it’s a beautiful country.”
A highlight of her time in Limpopo was helping prepare for, and attending, the beatification of Blessed Benedict Daswa, a South African school teacher who was killed for his Catholic faith and opposition to traditional witchcraft.
Returning to Sydney at the beginning of 2020, Sr Helen was asked by Fr Paul Cashen msc to come to Adelaide to work in the MSC’s Henley Beach parish.
“He thought with COVID forcing people to be shut in I could be some sort of a pastoral presence here,” she said.
Worried that she might not have enough to do, Sr Helen said she “hasn’t stopped” since she arrived and has been visiting people in aged care and in their homes as well as assisting with other parish duties.
She is enjoying living by the sea at Semaphore but isn’t tempted to reignite her childhood love of bodysurfing.
“It needs to be 50 degrees (Celsius) for me to go in,” she laughed.Jump to next article
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