Sr Helen Leary was called to eternal life on Saturday 16th May. The following eulogy was delivered at her funeral by Sr Julie Brand.
“Today, in Australia, we celebrate our national patronal feast – the solemnity of Our Lady Help of Christians – which is usually celebrated on 24th May, but was deferred to 25th this year with yesterday being Pentecost Sunday. Helen would be delighted that we have come together for her Requiem Mass on such a significant Marian Feast. She had deep love for Mary and desired that all be gathered under Mary’s mantel. In God’s graciousness He called Helen to Himself on a Saturday in the month of May (16th) – the day of the week, and the month of the year, when we traditionally honour Mary – and only a few days after the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, to whom Helen had particular devotion.
Helen Patricia Leary was born in Gundagai, NSW, on 12th April 1935 – the youngest of three girls born to John and Nellie Leary. Gundagai – the place of Helen’s childhood years and primary schooling – was always very special to her. She never forgot her country roots, and enjoyed spending holiday time with her sister, Margaret, and family on their rural property in her home district. Helen was very close to her two sisters, Rita and Margaret, and their families. She experienced their love and concern for her throughout her life and recognised God’s presence through their care and attentiveness. All the members of her family were very dear to Helen. They were uppermost in her prayers – for Helen was a woman of deep faith. It was her faith that sustained her when her sister, Margaret, died very unexpectedly last year, and it was faith that carried her through all the sorrows and struggles of her life.
Helen’s deep relationship with God led her to respond to His call to religious life. It was not long after completing her secondary schooling as a boarder at Santa Sabina College, Strathfield, that Helen entered the Marist Sisters. She was professed in St. Patrick’s, Church Hill, on 5th September 1956 and for a number of years was known by the religious name of Sr. Elizabeth. After her profession Helen ministered as a Primary teacher in Woolwich. She undertook studies at Mount Street Teacher Training College, and spent a brief period in Burwood, Victoria, before returning to Woolwich where she then taught junior Secondary classes and later assisted with the boarders. Helen shared with her students her own deep faith and her loving commitment to Mary’s Congregation. During my first year at school at Woolwich I recall Helen often reminding us about the call to religious life and inviting us to pray particularly for the novices who were in formation at that time. It did not surprise us that, in 1967, she was appointed Assistant Novice Mistress in Merrylands.
Helen was always generous in her response to God’s call. This led her to set out for Fiji in 1972 where she taught in Lami for a brief period. Unfortunately ill-health prevented Helen from continuing her ministry there and she returned to Australia later that year. Soon after, Helen gained a Diploma in Librarianship and this opened up a new field of ministry, through which Helen continued to touch the lives of teachers, children and their families in Primary Schools at St. Margaret Mary’s, Merrylands, and for many years at Villa Maria, Hunters Hill.
In 1994 Helen’s focus turned to pastoral work when she was appointed to Richmond in western Sydney. It was here that Helen became very active in parish ministry. Like our early Sisters in France, it was said of Helen that she would be “found in church and in the homes of the poor and the sick” (RMJ 280:60) Helen was keen for all to taste God, and never lost opportunities to invite people to share with one another the movement of the Spirit at work in their lives. She encouraged people in prayer and was very supportive of the ecumenical movement and the RCIA programme. Helen reached out to those most in need, visiting families, the frail aged and housebound, comforting the bereaved and taking Holy Communion to those in hospital. When Helen left Richmond and moved to Marian House to give community support to our older Sisters, her active involvement in parish life continued. As a parishioner of Hunters Hill, she visited families and the elderly and sick, participated in prayer groups, attended local ecumenical meetings and delighted in the friendships she formed with the Anglican minister and his wife, with pastors and parishioners of other denominations. Helen was faithful to meetings of Marist Laity. She attended discussion groups and prayer days, always keen to be actively involved with people seeking to deepen their relationship with God.
Helen loved people and made every effort to remain connected with those whose lives had touched hers. She kept in contact with school friends from Santa Sabina, with past pupils, with former boarders at Woolwich, and parishioners from Richmond. She maintained her interest in children and, up until very recently – even though not well – gave voluntary assistance to the librarian at Villa Maria Primary School, never wanting to miss her day there.
Drawing all into deeper communion with God and with one another was Helen’s strong desire. However, being one who loved variety, she enjoyed the lighter side of life too. In her younger years Helen was a good tennis player. She always loved a game of cards and took pleasure in fun activities that drew people together.
While Helen knew the joy of life, she also knew suffering. At various times in her life, serious episodes of ill-health led Helen to spend lengthy periods in hospital. She faced these experiences with great courage, growing in ever-deeper compassion for the sick. Her apostolic zeal never waned, nor did her courage leave her when, in her latter life, her physical condition began to decline. Though it was a cause of much frustration for her that her hearing deteriorated and her energy diminished, she remained steadfast in her faith and trust in God, and this gave her strength for the journey – right up until the last week of her life when she was admitted to Greenwich Hospital and then to Ashburn House.
It was Helen’s great spirit of faith and trust in God – and her deep love of Mary – that inspired us all, enlivening hope and confidence in the God of love. In all the pain and struggle of life she joined her sufferings with Christ and remained faithful to the God who loved her into being. United with Jesus, Helen desired that all would be one – one in love, one in mind and heart. You are now free of your suffering, Helen, and completely one with the God of Love. We thank you for the inspiration you have been to us. May you rest in peace.”