Sister Janssen puts many gifts to work

| Julie Pfitzinger | March 3, 2011 | 0 Comments

Sister Helen Janssen puts finishing touches on a woven basket in the activity room at Bethany Convent in St. Paul Feb. 26. Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

Sister Helen Janssen has always been grateful to God for “good health and so much energy” and the life experiences of this 89-year old Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet convincingly prove that she has made exceptional use of both gifts.

As she prepares to celebrate her 70th jubilee anniversary on March 19, Sister Helen reflected on a life filled with the blessings of family, her fellow sisters and the hundreds of students she taught over the years.

Growing up on what she called “a nice cozy farm” in the southwestern Minnesota town of Minneota, Sister Helen was one of 15 children — number 13 to be exact — born to parents who emigrated from Holland.

Her call to vocation came rather unexpectedly at the age of 17.

“I remember that we were having a wonderful Janssen dance at the farm and my brother’s wife said to me that she thought I would make a good nun,” Sister Helen recalled with a smile. “I knew my mother would be delighted, so I started to pray about it.”

Sister Helen was familiar with the Sisters of St. Joseph since several were living in Minneota, running St. Edward’s grade school.

“I was very inspired by them and thought they were very happy people,” she said.

A major adjustment

At age 18, Sister Helen entered the CSJ order, which meant moving to the Twin Cities to live in a convent and also attend high school, which she hadn’t done while on the farm because there was no bus to take her to school.

“I loved my family and the farm, so it was very difficult for me to leave. I was extremely lonesome and it took me time to adjust,” she said. “A few months later, the Mother Superior told me she hadn’t expected me to stay, but that I had blossomed like a rose.”

In 1941, Sister Helen received her habit and made her final vows in 1946. Soon after, “Sister Nicholas,” as she was called at the time, received an assignment that seemed overwhelming, but ended up being one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.

“I worked at the Catholic Boys Home in Minneapolis and was the one responsible for 20 little boys, ages 2 to 6 years old, who had come from broken homes or orphanages,” she said. “Baths every night, stories — I was a mother to them and I loved it.”

When told by her Mother Superior that she would be sent to teacher’s college, Sister Helen said, “At the time, it was not a joyful message for me because I didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher, but the Mother Superior’s decision was filled with wisdom. I loved every one of my 51 years in education.”

From teaching to healing

Sister Helen taught locally at several Catholic schools in St. Paul, including St. Columba, Holy Spirit and St. Luke.  She was then sent to Hawaii for 16 years where she taught in a CSJ school and loved her experience “with the people and the rich culture.”

Sister Helen finished her teaching career back home at St. Edward in Minneota, where she was thrilled to have several of her nieces and nephews in class. However, Sister Helen did much more than teach in her hometown — for several years, she taught CPR in the community and worked as an emergency medical technician. “I think I’m the only Sister of St. Joseph who’s ever done that,” she said.

Sister Helen also helped start Prairie Home Hospice in the Minneota area, where she served  as a chaplain and health aide to terminally ill patients receiving hospice care in their homes.

“I saw miracles of grace, one after another,” she said. “It was very life giving.”

Sister Helen returned to St. Paul in 2004 and moved to Bethany Convent, where she lives today and frequently accompanies members of her community to doctors’ appointments. An avid artist, Sister Helen paints, weaves rugs on the convent’s loom and makes quilts.

“It has been a wonderful life. I’ve delighted in all my years with the Sisters of St. Joseph and in the years of loving, sharing and happiness with my family,” she said. “I couldn’t hope for any more until I get to heaven.”

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Category: Jubilees