Free to Help those in Need

Three “pivotal moments” stand out for Sr Helen Stannard RSM as she was discerning to join the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta 25 years ago. While on an overseas holiday, the promptings from God became virtually unmistakable. Helen ended up in Notre Dame de Misericordia (Our Lady of Mercy) church for Mass on a French island, and on an island “dedicated to the goddess of mercy” in Singapore. But her most treasured sign came on a windy day in Ireland. Something caught under Helen’s foot, and she looked down. There was a nun staring up at her! Fast forward to 2022, the day of our interview, and Helen shows me the evidence that she kept and framed: a 5-pound note with the image of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy.  

At the time, Helen was 30 years old and had already explored a few avenues career-wise. She had taught in a primary school and then felt called to dedicate herself more to the Church. She read an advertisement in the Catholic Weekly about a youth minister needed to help with Marist retreats. So she became the first lay person on the team, working with Marist Brothers and Sisters to run year 12 and young adult retreats. Although Helen thought she didn’t “need to be a nun to pray and help those in need”, she found something special while living with the religious at that time. They had a freedom to be unconcerned about their own needs, so as to have more time for “helping the poor and needy.” In a true “God-incidence”, a Brother suggested she meet up with a Sister of Mercy and they got on “like a house on fire.” Helen discovered an image of a religious that was like a brick attached to a balloon with a string – they were grounded but could also travel freely.

Sr Helen at her Silver Jubilee as a Sister of Mercy

As Helen was joining the Sisters, she asked to work with the poor, so she did home visitations and taught English to new arrivals and migrants. She also got a theology degree – majoring in liturgy and scripture, which she “absolutely loved”. Helen was then asked to work in a Mercy school, coordinating liturgies, retreats and teaching religion. Later she did vocations work, counselling, art therapy, pastoral care, running sabbaticals and more coordination of liturgies. 

Bishop Vincent Long presenting Sr Helen with a gift for her Silver Jubilee

Altogether, Helen reflects that she has “loved every ministry and it has evolved.” Today she works under the direction of the Sisters to visit families in need in Western and Southern Sydney. She continues to do pastoral care in a high school, runs prayer groups and helps to coordinate retreats and reflection days. When I ask her about a particular meaningful liturgy, Helen immediately describes what she does with some of the struggling individuals that she visits. We could call these ‘bespoke prayer liturgies’, as she tailors them to the person’s situation and interests. Helen usually starts with a coffee and pastoral conversation about how the person is travelling. When it “comes to a natural conclusion”, she lights a candle and plays some appropriate music from her vast collections. Then she allows the person to “come into the heart space, the centre” with silence, prayer mantras or lectio divina. She leads them in prayers of intercession, touching into the person’s needs and including wider concerns of the world and the universe. The time might conclude with another hymn or song that reflects what they have shared.

I approached Helen about this blog because she had expressed an interest in becoming a deacon in a talk given by Phyllis Zagano about Women Religious, Women Deacons.1 Helen acknowledges that such a calling would have to be confirmed not just individually, but also by her religious order and the Church. But she would like to be a religious deacon, working across both her current dioceses. I ask her what it would add to her ministry. Helen says that it would be very similar to her current role, but different liturgically. She would love the “opportunity to preach”, though not at every Mass, and to do baptisms, weddings and funerals. For this, she says, she would need further training, and is very willing to undertake it. Helen affirms that it would be a “lovely witness” that women are also made in the image and likeness of God and have a place at the altar. Although she understands that the leader of her religious congregation would still have the highest authority over her ministry, she could “help wherever the bishops want me to.” By now, I feel that “helping” is key to any ministry that Helen performs. Thank you so much for sharing! 

1 This talk is not available online, but the book published on the same theme is available here: https://garrattpublishing.com.au/product/9780809156122/

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