6th January 1918 – 7th December 2017
Our Sister Helen Gilroy, whom her family know as Auntie Nell and we often called Gillie, made a frequent song request at community sing-alongs: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” I suspect that she was singing to Jesus, her beloved, but for many other people it was she herself who brought sunshine into the lives of others. As unifying centre of her network of family; as tender infirmarian helping so many RSCJ to die well over the years; as welcomer of the lost and lonely at the Crypt in Wellington; as gifted and well-loved teacher; or homebody and friend at Orewa, Island Bay and Kerever Park, Helen’s sunny happiness and unassuming kindness brought joy to many people and made her very easy to love.
She was born in Auckland, Grey Lynn, as fifth child in a family of eight, three girls and five boys born to Bernard Gilroy and Mary Elizabeth Franey. Her parents came to New Zealand from England in 1910. They were seriously concerned about this little one, born with a leaking heart valve, and had her baptised by the Parish Priest within the first few hours. All her life she was to be diminutive, petite. As a young religious I partnered Gillie in a dramatic re-enactment of the search for the heffalump. She was Piglet to my Pooh Bear and we kept those names for each other.
She was educated by the Josephites, loving her school days and doing well at studies and sport, always full of life. She records that in Grade 4 her good handwriting earned her the task of writing up the song charts for Choir Practice. All those family members who received her faithful cards and letters for birthdays or other big events will testify to the beauty of her handwriting all life long. One Friday the hymn she had to write up was A Message to the Sacred Heart, and the words made an indelible impression on her:
…My child, my child, give Me thy heart,
My Heart has bled for thee.
This is the message Jesus sends
To my poor heart today…
A message to the Sacred Heart,
Oh bear it back with speed.
Come, Jesus, reign within my heart,
Thy Heart is all I need…
During her last year at school she was asked to deliver a parcel to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Remuera. On this first visit she experienced a deep peace as she walked up the drive and she felt Jesus say: “This is where I want you to serve me.” She kept this to herself.
Her mother was booked to go to a Ladies’ Retreat here a few weeks later during the September school holidays but one of her brothers became very ill and Helen offered to replace her. This was Helen’s first retreat ever, but she felt quite at home, keeping the silence and observing the religious. She reported being impressed by their gentleness and courtesy to one another as well as their care of the guests. She returned to school full of a deeper, felt love for Jesus.
Her exams finished, Helen did a temporary job on a Burroughs machine, told her mother of her desire to enter, and in January made her second retreat here, this time with her mother. During it she spoke with the Jesuit director and the Superior about her call. Archbishop Liston always said Mass on the last morning of the retreat and he received Helen and her mother afterwards. He gave his blessing to her entering on February 20th, 1935.
She was a very happy, hard-working little novice but during the last six months of her noviceship Helen’s health declined – aftermath she believed, of a serious incident of food poisoning she had had at the age of 14. In September 1937, she had to return home. Reverend Mother Colgan put a note inside her suitcase for her to find saying:
God never does,
nor suffers to be done
but what thou wouldst thyself,
couldst thou but see
the end of all events
as well as He.
Though very sad, she took those words to heart, put all her trust in God and what he was doing. After two months recuperation she went to work at Lewisham Hospital in Wellington until May 1940. In November of that year Reverend Mother de Kerever was visiting Auckland and sent for Helen, inviting her to return, and giving her permission to finish her noviceship in Australia. She received the habit in Sydney on her birthday in 1941 and that evening went by train to Melbourne.
She was very happy as one of two novices and it was there that she learned to iron the “keyhole” caps you see her wearing on p.10, at the bottom of the page, a skill she was to use for the next 25 years. She returned to Sydney to make her vows on the 31st May, 1943 and stayed at Rose Bay until 1946. Caps for a big community and the novices, Sacristan’s duties and help in the Infirmary, both community and school, set a pattern for the next years of her life.
Back to Auckland and for 24 years this was her home. She was school infirmarian for a while, then was asked to be community infirmarian “temporarily.” It would be for 19 years, and included responsibility for the linen room and the caps. She prepared many of our sisters for heaven and though she loved her patients tenderly — and gladly – the demands made on her were very hard at times. At times Superiors were inclined to overload those who were capable and generous, humble and uncomplaining, like Helen.
The 1960s were a time of changes in religious life, ones Helen was not too keen on. Reverend Mother Tobin visited us from Rome in 1965 (?) and asked Helen if she’d ever thought of teaching? Helen said no, she was happy doing what she was doing … two weeks later she was given a bundle of text books and told that the following year she would be teaching standard 4! So it was indeed, a lively class of 32 little people, and doing her Trained Teacher’s Certificate by correspondence at the same time, while also being in charge morning and evening of the Holy Child Dormitory with 34 4th formers! (Lively is too pale a word for them.) She commented in hindsight “We all survived and I was happy most of the time.”
At last, in 1970, at the age of 52 Helen went to Loreto Hall Teachers’ Training College, with Sister Joan Vickers as her companion, to finish her TTC, (the final 9 subjects out of 15) and to work at Method, because, she said, an inspector had found her methods “amateurish” when he saw her teaching a Form 1 class. What we expected the ‘grace of state’ to do for us in those days is unbelievable! A sort of refrain runs through her life, however. Helen valued the study, loved the company, the whole experience.
Then followed two years in Christchurch, teaching Standard 1 at Christ the King School, which included the First Communion Programme for the school and the CCD. Helen enjoyed every moment of it, but even though she was very settled there, she was asked to make the sacrifice of leaving it, to go to St Madeleine Sophie’s School in Wellington. Her work there was the same, and after living for two years in the community at Erskine, a group of three RSCJ who were teaching in the parish school hived off into a smaller house at 91 Clyde Street, where they were closer to the church and their parishioners and ultimately the rebuilt parish school next to the church of St Francis de Sales. Good years, good community I think.
And they were followed in 1979 by four months of “Recyclage”, a renewal time in the spirit of the Society, in prayer and the interior life. Helen joined an international group of RSCJ in Randwick, Sydney: 1 Korean, 6 Japanese, 2 Chinese, 3 Maltese, 1 Irish, 4 Kiwis, 3 Australians led by a team of 3 directors that included our own Sr June Kirk Smith. The aim of the experience was to do something to make up to former sisters for what had been hard, restrictive and even humiliating, in the formation and life of coadjutrix sisters in the past. Though Gillie had always managed to maintain her interior joy, sure that she was doing God’s will, she revelled in what she described as “the atmosphere of love, consideration and sensitivity…” She relaxed, felt herself freeing up in a way she hadn’t known she needed. Helen let it be known that she felt called to go back to nursing and instead of the short refresher course in geriatric nursing at a local nursing home that she had asked for, our Provincial sent Gillie overseas for two years. There was to be one year in England with some further upskilling built in, but much more! It was a great time.
She visited India on the way to Rome, then took a Eurail Pass trip with Sister Kath Grace to places in Europe: Pompei, Florence – I was studying in Munich and welcomed her there, smuggled her and Sister Kath Grace into an overbooked Passion Play at Oberammergau, and introduced her to the delights of the Biergarten. (They were both naturals and waved their steins to oompah bands with the best of them.) Thence to Switzerland, and Venice before installing Kath at her promised retreat with St Francis in Assisi. Helen returned alone to Rome to fly to England.
She worked in the infirmary at Roehampton, London, and with their team nursed wonderful RSCJs, loved it and was loved. She met her own English relations for the first time, a highlight, and visited many places in London and other parts of the country. In October 1981 she flew to New York, for a few weeks saw how the Infirmary at Kenwood worked before leaving for St Philippine’s territory, St Charles ,Missouri – another highlight. On to Menlo Park in California for a very rewarding couple of months during which Helen helped with the nursing and learned much from what they were doing for the elderly. She arrived back in Auckland in time for Christmas 1981, ready to take up work here in the New Year.
With three others she formed a group to be the caring nucleus of new community of 16, mainly elderly sisters of whom three were confined to bed. Called the Shalom community, it lasted from 1982 to 89. In 1990 she had a sabbatical in Rose Bay, Sydney, helping in the archives, another work she found she loved. When she returned it was not to Baradene as she expected, but to Orewa where three of our sisters had established a ministry of presence at 20 Elizabeth Street. There she made many friends for life and learned to play bridge. She loved everything about her life there… especially her early morning meditation walks along the beach.
In 1994, she was asked to go to Wellington to take over the flourishing drop-in centre which Sister Monica McGivern had established in the Crypt underneath St Mary of the Angels. Hesitant at first – she wasn’t sure she had the gifts needed to work with the down-and-out and addicted, and she still had much to learn about bridge — she agreed after her brother’s death, trusting God to help her with whatever was needed, We’re very glad she did, because the apostolate of the Crypt continued to flourish. She says she encountered there “a different side of life: poverty, sadness, hunger, loneliness, bitterness, mental illness, umemployment, injustice…” She saw , and welcomed, ex-prisoners trying to readjust in an uncaring world, addicts trying to stay clean. Cups of tea and coffee, biscuits and home baking, warmth and comfortable chairs. Helen led a team of volunteers and together they tried to bring a little love, warmth and understanding into peoples’ lives. In 2002 she was awarded a prestigious honour, being made a Member of the New Zealand Order Of Merit, which recognised the work she was doing and had done in her life.
When the Society withdrew from Wellington in 2003, Helen asked to be sent to Australia, to be part of the spirituality centre community at Kerever Park, and became a cherished member of that happy and hospitable lot. Bridge reappeared. Gillie loved the work of the centre, their coworkers and guests, the household dog, the freedom and fun, and made many good friends. Only when there were serious signs of future health problems beginning did she return to Baradene – a hard acceptance, even though it brought her back into the orbit of her beloved and very faithful nephews and nieces and her sister Colleen. It was time for Helen to receive from others the loving care she had lavished on others. Her profession motto was FIDELITY TO THE HEART OF JESUS and she would live it to the end
After she stopped being able to speak much, and needed to be in a wheel chair, she was unfailingly aware of emotional tone and her responsive smile was an instant reward for those who greeted her or showed her kindness. She has been anointed with the Sacrament of the Sick so often in recent years, every two months, then recently every month, and received the Lord in Communion daily until the day before her death when she was not able to respond. Though her fires were flickering very low, we know that the Lord Jesus she had sought so earnestly and loved so whole-heartedly was most assuredly with her then and early on Thursday, December 7th he came to gather her into full communion with himself, in the glory and joy of the Trinity.
Be free at last, beloved Helen. Be fully alive in the joy and the love of your Lord!