Writing Straight with Crooked Lines

May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict

The year was 1946, and Helen Carey had ordered matching bedspreads with her roommate-to-be. She couldn’t wait to go to college. She had wanted to be a nurse as long as she remembered.

As she made final plans for the move to Marycrest College in Davenport, Iowa, though, Helen received devastating news. Her mother had been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer that had already metastasized to the brain and bone. Instead of learning nursing in college, Helen went home to nurse her mom and care for her family.

“While other young women my age were attending classes, I was chauffeuring neighborhood kids around,” Sr. Helen remembers. “I was a Cub Scout den mother and a member of the Junior Women’s Club. I was dating a very nice young man who I thought I might marry.”

When Helen’s mother died in 1949, though, she decided not to remain in Streator. Instead, she moved to Joliet, Ill., to take a job with Caterpillar as a keypunch operator and enjoy the life of a young carefree adult.

A Wild Year

“My dad had remarried, and had encouraged me to go to college,” Sr. Helen says. “But I had gone through so much, caring for my mom, that I decided I couldn’t be a nurse. Working at Caterpillar was great fun. My friends and I used to go to Chicago to see plays all the time. We’d go to jazz clubs, and get a sandwich and a pitcher of beer. We’d catch the last bus back to Joliet.

“One night we caught the train to LaSalle/Peru to see a band we really liked. We missed the last train back, so we rented a hotel room for the night. Trouble was, we were supposed to report for work at nine the next morning. We had already been late enough that we worried we’d lose our jobs if we came in late again.

“So we pooled our money and called the airport to see if a private plane would fly us back early the next morning. A guy there said he would do it so we got to work on time, although we were wearing the same clothes we had on yesterday. But I was thrilled. It was my first time in an airplane.”

The Fork in the Road

Attending night school classes to learn more computer skills, Helen advanced in the company. Soon she was wiring the boards to keep factory inventory and do payroll accounting. But Helen’s “wild year” was winding down. She was starting to want something more.

“My family had always been quite religious, so it was natural for me to choose to go on a retreat during the annual company summer shutdown,” Sr. Helen says. “I went to the Benedictines and had a very peaceful time. I wondered what it would be like to be a nun. They all looked so happy.”

Despite her religious upbringing, Helen had never thought of becoming a Sister before.

“After that retreat, though, I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I wrote to several communities for information and even visited another group. But the Benedictines were for me. I valued their quiet happiness.”

Sr. Helen left her job and entered the community – to the surprise of many – in 1952.

“I had all kinds of friends say, You’ll never last,’” she chuckles. “I guess they were wrong.”

Sr. Helen did end up attending college. She earned her BA in English, and her MA and PhD in philosophy. After a career in teaching, campus ministry and hospital chaplaincy – where Sr. Helen got as near to nursing as she ever again wished to be - she currently leads book discussion groups, writes and leads retreats from her home at the monastery.