Sister Helen O’Hara

Written on: September 25, 2014

The following remembrance was shared by Sister Mary Lee Farrell at the Funeral Liturgy for Sister Helen on September 25, 2014

Helen was born to dance. All four O’Hara girls took lessons but Helen was the most faithful. I am told that her mother kept a notebook of every class, every lesson, with all the steps listed, and Helen used that book to practice the steps between lessons. Throughout her life, she danced: with students, with young people at Melrose camp (she taught Maureen Fasy to do the tango!), with retreatants, with parents and patients at Kevin House, with clients at the neighborhood housing agency. At festivities honoring her golden jubilee, she performed her own choreography.

What Grey Nun can forget the sunrise service in Prospect Park during one of our congregational meetings there? I cannot forget the Indian Circle at Spirit of the Seasons in Erie, soon after her major illness, when about 80 of us danced around a large statue of Kateri Tekawitha.  Helen was one of the last ones to stop! I learned then that she had studied many ethnic dances, Quaker dances, and Indian dances, learned not just for herself, but in order to teach us to do it too!  How simply she initiated those gestures with us at prayer, in the days when many of us were not comfortable with doing them.

“O Great Spirit, Earth, Wind, Sky and Sea, you are within, and all around me”.  

Intuitively Helen emphasized the visual over the verbal, for she knew that actions and pictures made a greater impression on others than words alone. She did not write or draw, but used her great awareness of color and scenery to convey to others the great joy she saw in life. “She was big on bulletin boards and displays,” remarked one sister who knew her well. Her work in the neighborhood housing  agency gave her the chance to work with many clients who were mentally challenged; Helen used the many images she had collected, supplemented with her own handcut letters, to communicate with them and engage them in dialogue.  In later years, her special service to the Buffalo Sisters as they prepared the annual retreat was to prepare the fliers and create the ambiance. In retirement, as she transitioned between the Motherhouse and D’Youville manor, she continued to bring out displays from her treasure trove, much to the delight of residents and Grey Nun Academy students as well. She introduced the students to Norman Rockwell! And who can forget her delight in the Luminous Mysteries of the rosary, the living rosary celebrations, and the May crowning – using these as “teaching moments” and openings for discussions on multi-cultural depictions of Mary.

Helen was a woman in motion. Despite her visual difficulties, she walked faster than many of her companions.  “I always reminded her to wait for me at the corner,” said one, and a sign on Helen’s walker at D’Youville Manor was to remind her to slow down!

Helen was inquisitive and interested in all of life. She had a great desire to learn, to know the “new thinking” in the church.  And as with other things she learned, these items were shared with others. A sister in local group commented that “she came to every meeting prepared with a list of social justice and spiritual opportunities that she thought we should know about.  She was a quiet participant, but always gave her input firmly and was ready to defend her opinions.” Helen was active in the parish council at Holy Angels – she persuaded them to attend the evangelization workshops in the diocese, and reached out personally to help Burmese families adjust to American culture. She was a greeter at Masses, and an advocate for folks in the parish. At home, her sense of hospitality was legendary. She set the dinner table each night with an extra place in case someone came. She never wanted anyone who might happen to drop by to feel unwelcome or that there was not enough for them. We see expressed in this, and many other occasions which we heard about last evening, an echo of the text from Philippians: “my deep desire is that I shall never fail in my duty…I shall be full of courage so that with my whole being I shall bring honor to Christ.” In the words of one of our sisters, “she was a gentle person with a wonderful smile and an engaging laugh. She was faithful to all of her duties. She was a person of quiet strength and a wonderful listener.  She was holy in the true sense of the word.”

Helen was a woman of quiet determination. She had her own vision of life, and appearance was important to her: she “dressed” for every occasion – she had costumes for every occasion! The Halloween angel, complete with very large wings, and her St. Patrick’s attire – how to describe it?  She was ready to do an Irish dance at liturgy on March 17, but she fell that very morning and was not able to be present.  As in other times when she dealt with failing health or diminished eyesight, she was indefatigable!  She concentrated on what she could do rather than on her limitations. I’m sure you have heard the old adage: “I fall down. I get up. I fall down. I get up. Meanwhile I keep on dancing…” (Daniel Hillel) soon she was home talking about dancing with a walker, or perhaps in a wheelchair!

On Sept. 8th while Helen was still in the ICU, she mentioned to someone on the Holy Redeemer staff that this day marked the 70th anniversary of her entrance into the GNSH congregation. One of them called the pastoral care department to tell them about this and Sister Barbara, CSR—along with others from pastoral care and from the unit Helen was on—arrived later that day in Helen’s room with flowers, decorations and cards and had a little celebration of Helen’s 70thanniversary. As you know, Helen loved to plan celebrations, so it couldn’t have happened to anyone who would have appreciated it more!

The scriptures chosen for today could not be more appropriate. There is a time for everything – to be a teacher, an OC Assistant, a nursing home visitor, a volunteer receptionist, and always a time to dance. A time to live in the present, and not worry about tomorrow for it will have worries of its own. Do not go ahead of the grace I give you for today.

If Helen were directing this liturgy, she would be dancing now.  Just for a few moments, I’d like to ask you to close your eyes, and picture her doing just that, here in the sanctuary – dancing to the words of Mechtild , words which I believe characterized her whole life:

Dancing with God by Mechtild de Madeburg

I cannot dance, O lord, unless you lead me

And if you want me to leap for joy

Then you must be the first to dance and to sing

And I will follow you, in your echo I will ring.

Then, only then, then, only then, then, only then,

Will I dance for joy!

I cannot sing, O Lord, unless you lead me

And if you want me to sing with joy

You must be the first to sing out your song

And I will follow you and sing right along.

Then, only then, then, only then, then, only then,

Will I sing for joy!

I cannot dance, O Lord, unless you lead me

And if you want me to leap for joy

Then you must be the first to dance and to sing

And I will follow you, in your echo I will ring.

Then, only then, then, only then, then, only then,

Will I dance for joy!*

 *recording by Marie Cox on the album Women’s Song of God

Thank you, Helen, for sharing the joy of dance, the joy of your life with us!

For Sister Helen’s Obituary please click here


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