Sister Helen O’Sullivan, SNJM
Sister Mary Margaret of the Sacred Heart
November 11, 1927 – January 4, 2018
Sister Helen O’Sullivan, SNJM departed this life on January 4, 2018 at Our Lady of Fatima Villa, Saratoga, California. Sister Helen celebrated 90 years of life and 70 years of her religious profession.
Eulogy for Sister Helen O’Sullivan, SNJM
Much of what I share with you was written by Helen herself in 2000! She was always conscientious about being responsible, on time and filling in forms so when we were asked to create an end-of-life folder, Helen dove right in and planned this entire liturgy – the reading and the reflections and requesting her friend,
Fr. Ed to be the presider and an autobiography! THANK YOU, HELEN! I have taken some liberties along the way to add comments of my own or from others. Let me begin with her own words…
“The O’Sullivan family, Mary Norton and Eugene O’Sullivan, came to California from Iowa during the Depression years. My mother and father had three children when the Depression came and there was no work for them In Iowa. This forced them to leave home, their relatives and friends, and come to Southern California, where a postal job was promised to my father. After finding a place to live, the first thing my parents did was to buy a piano as music was a deeply embedded part of our family. Dad played the violin; Mom, my brother and 2 sisters played the piano.
Shortly after our arrival from Iowa, I was born on November 11, 1927. My three siblings were: Eulalia, age 7; Gene, age 10 and Mariel, age 14. As time progressed we moved from Los Angeles to Alhambra.
From my earliest years I learned our Catholic faith and music were most important to my parents. My early religious formation was given to me by my parents and nurtured in the schools I attended, staffed by the Sisters of the Holy Names. My first recollection of my mother was her singing songs as she took care of me: hymns, folk songs or a song of the day. She had an endless repertoire and I could request any song I wished her to sing. Mom frequently reminded me to pray; her good night always included, “Don’t forget to say your prayers”. Dad had great devotion to Mary. In the evening after dinner we would go for a walk with the dog and talk about the “Almighty” or “Divine Providence”, and then he would say the Rosary.
During my elementary school years we attended many rehearsals and performances by the family. Mom and Dad were members of the Los Angeles Civic Chorus, performing in operettas. My oldest sister, Mariel, was a classical pianist and also played jazz. My brother, Gene, was a gifted musician with true pitch. He had his own dance band and play organ and piano. My sister, Eulalia, studied piano but changed to voice and opera when she attended Immaculate Heart College.
As for my piano education, my early pleasure was to sit on the piano bench, watch and listen as my family played. My formal lessons began at age seven. It was never quiet at our house. The first person up in the morning selected what record would be played as we were preparing for school or work. This selection could be opera, Jazz or symphony. From this constant music or sound from our house, it may be easy to understand why we moved thirteen times in thirteen years; our neighbors were a definite part of these decisions.
I entered first grade at All Souls School in Alhambra. I loved my teachers and school. The Sisters carried on our music education with singing and an appreciation of working on stage in several musicals. What happy years I had in school and playing sports! When I wasn’t at school or practicing the piano, my time was given to gardening, swimming, tennis and ice skating. When it was time for high school I chose to go to Ramona. Besides receiving a good education, being with the Sisters influenced my decision to become a Sister of the Holy Names.
My family life came to an abrupt change when the U.S. became involved in World War II. This prompted both my dad and my brother to go together to enlist in the Navy. It was my freshman year at Ramona. The summer of ’42 was the last time our family was together.
During my high school years my friendship with Jeanne Heinisch grew. We had been in the same class from the first grade. Our circumstances drew us together and she became part of our family. During our senior year we both were boarders at Ramona. As the war came to a close, my dad returned from duty in the South Pacific in time for my Ramona graduation.
On July 22, 1945, I entered the Oakland Novitiate with my dear friend Jeanne Heinisch. I grew and was enriched by the events and special friendships at my ministry assignments. I spent 50 years as a music teacher, classroom teacher, principal and girls coach. Some of my favorite times were: enjoying family and friends; preparing and participating in liturgies, musicals; decorating classrooms, altars, stages and working with flowers and crafts; going to community celebrations – NOT MEETINGS! – theater, musicals, films; being outside to enjoy the beauty of nature, sports and coaching.
My favorite school assignment was St. Anthony School in San Gabriel, because of the wonderful people I met and the life-long friendships I still treasure. During those years, I was given the freedom to be my true self – creative and spontaneous.” Sr. Marianne Viani, Helen’s principal and best friend, during this period, says that Helen was dearly loved by students, faculty and parents for her kindness & good nature. During her 15 year stay she loved being involved in everything – attending all the sports activities, creating children’s liturgies using her gifts of song, dance and drama, working on parish festivals, dressing up for Halloween, and even creating the parents quarterly clean–campus day. Wherever Helen was fun and laughter usually erupted. Helen was playful and made everything fun.
Another assignment that Helen considered a “true gift” was the invitation in 1993 to come to Villa Maria del Mar Retreat Center in Santa Cruz to be part of the staff and to help care for the gardens. Helen always loved the beach and the water so this offer could not be passed up! She says, “It was a relaxing change from a school schedule. The beauty of the sea and surroundings were always refreshing.” During Helen’s 23 years at Villa Maria she served as a gracious hostess to groups, chapel sacristan, wedding coordinator, fundraising committee, interior decorator, landscape designer, gardener par excellence with Alex Maduena, driver and tour guide for any visitor. She loved working with the devoted Villa staff and was fiercely loyal to the five Directors she had during those years. She was an absolute delight to work with and always had a smile, a new creative idea to consider or a clever quip to keep us on our toes.
Earlier you heard some of Helen’s “favorite things.” I would like to include a few more “favorite things” to that list:
She loved being Irish, and being “adopted member” of the Viani family’s gatherings, meeting new people, planning pre Academy Awards parties, art, boogie boarding and body surfing (FYI Helen gave up her wet suit when she turned 80!) She loved dogs and Dodger Dogs, In and Out Burgers, root beer floats, strawberry ice cream, spaghetti and room temp beer, travel anywhere any time with anyone, watching TV in the evenings with Mimi, driving, poetry,– and her many friendships with our Sisters in the great north west – especially Oregon, where she studied for many summers. I would suggest Helen lived her life in techicolor!
One of the last significant highlights was her 70th Jubilee as an SNJM last June. Her family and friends were there and Helen loved the celebration and reading all their cards and notes of love and congratulations in the days that followed. However, after that event Helen seemed to have used up all her energy and she began to decline slowly. Our two nurses, Alicia and Meseret, kept a loving eye on Helen both at Merrill and at Fatima – especially as her decline progressed.
I would be remiss if I did not give you a little background on the dog that was carried up at the offertory. Spot was a gift from Helen’s dear friend, Joyce Sawaya who bought it for her because she kept bugging me to get her a real dog – which of course I could not do! Helen loved Spot and in her final months Spot and Sister Lynn were constant companions at Fatima. That dog went everywhere with her – to meals, physical therapy, even to Mass (because, of course, he was a “Catholic dog”) She slept with him every night and she died peacefully with him close to her heart.
In closing her autobiography Helen writes:
“I am grateful to our generous God for my religious vocation and to all who have touched my life and given me life — my family, friends and Community.
Their faith, prayer and support have blessed me and have enriched my life by their care and love.
May God be with us all and protect us as we continue our journey, until
we meet at the heavenly banquet. Amen. Alleluia!
Gratefully and lovingly,
And dear Helen, you frequently teased me about having the last word, but today I speak for all of us as we thank God for you – your love, friendship, prayers and playfulness have enriched our lives. May you continue to be a source of blessings for us – and until we meet again, may God continue to hold you in the hollow of God’s hand. We love you, Helen!
Patti Doyle, snjm
January 15, 2018