Archived News Item

Sister Helen McDonell: RIP

Sister Helen McDonell RSM of the North Sydney Congregation died recently, aged 86 years. Sister Loreto Conroy (Local Communications Facilitator, North Sydney) says, when you read the eulogy delivered by Sister Margaret Shakeshaft RSM, “you are made aware of [Helen’s] tremendous contribution to Papua New Guinea.” The full text of the eulogy follows.

Sister Helen McDonell RSM (North Sydney)
October 14, 1922 – March 19, 2008

I would like to thank Josette for giving me the privilege of doing what earlier, she would have liked to do herself, and for trusting me to give Helen’s eulogy.

A great lady. A special person. A ball of fun. A loving sister. A great story teller. A sincere friend. A vibrant personality. A fine missionary. A deeply spiritual person. Phrases used to describe Helen.

Helen Margaret McDonell was born on October 14, 1922. Her parents were Donald McDonell and Ellen nee Carlton. Her siblings, Flora, Tom, Kathleen, Alex, Agnes, Austin, John, Jessie, Joan and Josette who was born after Helen. At the time of Helen’s birth, the family was living on the Manning River. All of the immediate family have predeceased Helen, except her beloved Josette whom we lovingly support today.

Helen’s father was a grazier and Helen a real country girl who loved horses and spent many happy hours riding. It was from these early days on the family property that Helen developed her love of the country. Horses were always her favourite animal. Later on in life, on the few occasions when opportunity did knock, Helen seized them and enjoyed a ride.

Helen loved her family dearly and often spoke of them, sharing stories about her upbringing and her training. It will be a surprise to many to hear that as a child, Helen was shy and depended on Jo to do the talking. However, on one occasion Josette remembers this was not necessary. Their mother had chosen some stylish red check material to have a blouse made for Helen who said that she did not like the material and moreover that she would not wear it. Their mother tried to coax and persuade, telling Helen it was very fashionable and that everyone was wearing it, whereupon Helen produced her own trump card by replying, “You taught us to be leaders not followers. I refuse to wear it.”

This Scottish – Irish family was truly a remarkable one. As is often the case, deep suffering had been experienced when one infant son died and another died in early adulthood. Deeply steeped in the faith of their parents, four daughters entered the Good Samaritans whilst three entered the Mercies. One son became a Redemptorist priest and one son married. What a remarkable story!

Thus, Peter, son of Alex and Thelma, is the only offspring of this great family. He and his wife, Denise, together with their two sons, Ryan and Cameron are with us today. We offer them also, our sincere sympathy.

Helen was fittingly proud of her family and heritage, the Irish yes, but particularly the Scottish. She was grateful all of her life, for times shared with each member of her family and their unity and support.

Helen entered the North Sydney Sisters of Mercy in January 1942. She, together with Sisters Kathleen Holahan, Teresa Lyon, Patricia Kerin, Thaddeus Dunn, Barbara Cohen and Doreen Goodman were professed in 1945. During their novitiate year, because of the Second World War the group was moved to Wentworth Falls and there are many interesting stories about their time there and this unique experience. Over the years this group have been faithful to each other to the end; celebrating and supporting; sharing joys and sorrows together. Thaddeus and Barbara have both died. The remaining members maintain their bonds in whatever capacity they can. Their loyalty to each other is inspiring and Helen really appreciated this.

Helen, a gifted teacher, had great drive and enthusiasm which she generously shared with her pupils wherever she was. This motivated them to give of their best. Her students did very well in the Primary Final Exam, of many years ago. In addition to this, Helen was a great coach and her basketball teams were often victorious in competitions.

In 1965 Helen was one of those chosen to go to Pumakos in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea. She responded with courage, generosity and openness. The beauty of the country touched Helen, as did the simplicity of the people. Helen was adaptable and gave of her best always. Her sense of humour was a great help as the first little group of North Sydney Mercies faced the challenges of living and working in a Melanesian culture where the people, the language, the surroundings and the quality and way of life were all so very different.

Helen was headmistress in Pumakos where she worked tirelessly and with great energy. She had many a laugh as we examined children’s teeth to determine their ages for the new intake each year. Life was so changed, but she was very happy. Again here, her students did well in the challenging Grade 6 exams where only a low percentage of students were able to fill the limited places available in high schools.

When the education system in PNG was nationalised, Helen became an Inspector. She was always true to her principles and values. I remember when a particular headmistress received a lower ranking from Helen, than an important member of the community wanted for the headmistress. What a situation to be in! However, Helen was unwavering in her evaluation of the person’s performance and even after discussion the ranking remained the same.

Later, Helen was Catholic Education Secretary. She moved to Wabag, living in a little teacher’s house at the mission headquarters. She drove around the highland roads, often walking long distances to visit schools and inspect teachers in remote areas. Sometimes one had to fly to otherwise inaccessible places. Helen helped and encouraged many teachers during these days. 

It was at this time, that Helen experienced deep loneliness. She shared with Jo that the loneliness in her life was devastating. Far away from home and with limited contact with our sisters in Pumakos and Hagen, Helen was finding things very hard. Knowing that the Government High School in Wabag needed a teacher, Helen encouraged Josette to volunteer to come to PNG. Josette did. However, she was appointed to Holy Trinity Teacher’s College in Mount Hagen. This is about 63 miles away from Wabag, but at least they were in the same country and this was a blessing!

Following this, ever open and adaptable, Helen came to Holy Trinity Teacher’s College for a year to conduct a full time Inservice course for headmasters. After this Helen moved into full time work with young women, including those who were interested in joining the Sisters of Mercy. This was through teaching and helping them with correspondence studies and providing live-in weekends and days of input and reflection. Indeed, even from early days at Pumakos, our sisters were always helping young women to upgrade their educational standard through correspondence studies. This enabled them be to eligible to apply to enter Teaching Training Colleges, Community Health Worker’s and Nursing training, or to join religious congregation.
Helen being able to do this full time was a gift. She influenced many of the present Sisters of Mercy of Papua New Guinea and more young women. Indeed, many brown skinned people and an international community will be mourning with us today; our Mercy sisters, missionaries and ex-students; men and women in professional and business positions in PNG.

For sure, Helen contributed greatly to the initial members of the current body of the Sisters of Mercy of Papua New Guinea. She will not be forgotten.

Later Helen was asked to move from the Highlands of PNG to the coast; another letting go! She accepted and went to Kairiru Island, off the coast of Wewak to teach English at St John’s Minor Seminary. A very different assignment but again one in which she was fully dedicated and committed. You have seen a picture of her leaving Wewak on her way to Kairiru, on the cover of the booklet today.

The quote on the booklet links Helen’s time in PNG with today, for she said these words when Josette asked her if she had fear about dying. Helen’s response being, “No fear, just curious.” These words are really applicable to many events in Helen’s fruitful life of loving service.

As Helen’s step got slower and her breathing more laboured during these last months and weeks, I noticed her voice was softer and her smile gentler and it lasted longer. Helen knew that she did not have long to live and with great humility she apologised to anyone to whom she felt she needed to do so. How courageous!

Helen was herself to the end. On the Friday night before she died, as she lapsed in and out of sleep and talked to us, someone said, “Helen would you like to sleep now?” She said, “Yes, I would, but I don’t want to miss anything!” Surely this was Helen through and through. By the Monday evening she knew it was time to rest on the oars and she did so graciously; very grateful for all the support her sisters and friends here have given her, particularly during these last months of her life.

In the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, the Mass of the Oils is celebrated on the Wednesday morning in Holy Week, so that the priests have time to return to their parishes for Holy Thursday. When Helen died early in the morning last Wednesday, we let contacts in PNG know of her death. They spread the word. Thus, at the 9am Mass of the Oils celebrated in Mt Hagen by Archbishop Doug Young, 35 priests knew of Helen’s death and were united in remembering and praying for her. Likewise, in Wabag Diocese, at the Mass of the Oils, Bishop Arnold Orowae said that all the priests gathered offered the Mass for Helen. A good friend, Father Joe Krettek, SVD gave a eulogy.

This, on the morning of her death! Amazing! Yes! Yet to me, it was typical of Helen’s life. She lived life to the full! She would have been delighted and very grateful. What a fitting tribute to her and the great contribution she made in Papua New Guinea.

Helen once gave me a card. On it were words of Hildegard, a Benedictine nun and a mystic. It reads, ”O refreshing, greening Hand of God touching all your work with life.”

I believe, and I have experienced that God let Helen share in that; in the refreshing and the greening. God let Helen bring life and joy to many people.

I salute you Helen, “Yaka pilino.” Thank you, in Engan, as we say, “Au Revoir for now.”

In thanksgiving for the gift of you and your life, I pray the prayer on the card, 

May our God
Who gave you birth
Refresh you
this day
with the
new Life.

Eulogy delivered by Sister Margaret Shakeshaft RSM (North Sydney) on Tuesday March 25, 2008.

Messages to: Sister Loreto Conroy (Local Communications Facilitator, North Sydney)