Sister Helen Fitton, MM

Born: July 5, 1925
Entered: September 6, 1944
Died: March 30, 2005

“Life is a joy That is shared like Flowers In the beauty of a friendship.” (On Helen’s prayer shelf)

We gather this morning to celebrate the entrance into New Life of our Sister Helen Fitton. Since December 2004, Helen had experienced a general sense of not feeling well. On the 24th of March she was admitted to Northern Westchester Hospital Center in Mt. Kisco. Despite treatment she passed away on March 30, 2005, in the early morning with the nurse in ICU by her side. Several Maryknoll Sisters had been with her the evening before. Helen was seventy-nine years of age and had been a Maryknoll Sister for sixty-one years.

Helen Katherine Fitton was born on July 5, 1925, in Rantoul, Illinois. She was the daughter of Catherine Mae Sullivan Fitton and Patrick Edward Fitton. She was one of seven children. Helen graduated from Prairie Star Rural Elementary School and Rantoul Township High School in Rantoul, Illinois. She attended St. Teresa College in Winona, Minnesota, for one year, before entering Maryknoll on September 6, 1944. As a teenager Helen read and heard about Maryknoll: “I liked what I read and wanted missionary work,” she said. At reception she received the name of Sister Mary Catherine Patrice. She pronounced her First Vows at Maryknoll, New York, on March 7, 1947, and her Final Vows in Manila, Philippines, on March 7, 1950.

In 1949, Helen received a B.E. from Maryknoll Teachers College, Maryknoll, New York. She was then assigned to the Philippines where she spent twenty-seven years of ministry in the field of education. During these years, Helen earned a M.A. in Education at the Ateneo de Manila University. From 1949 to 1971, she was first a teacher then a principal at Maryknoll-staffed schools in Manila. From 1971 to 1976, she ministered at the former Maryknoll College, in Quezon City, as Directress and as Academic Consultant in the Child Study Center.

In 1974, Helen was diagnosed with a chronic illness. Although she knew she had to slow down from three meetings a day to one a day, she continued to minister to others. When asked if she was faithful to her rest period she said, “If I go any slower I will be standing still.” She had been a dynamo of energy and work, and this enforced rest was difficult on her. Her slightness of frame never stopped her from accomplishing enormous amounts of work.

In 1976, after much prayerful discernment with the Sisters in the Philippines, Helen realized that because of health reasons it would be best to return to the States. It was difficult for her to leave her ministry in the Philippines. Of those twenty-seven years she would write: “While in the Philippines, my interest and consuming endeavor was to assist in the formation of good leaders who would serve their people in the poorest areas. Before leaving the Philippines, I had the joy of seeing much evidence of this kind of leadership among those in whose education I had participated.”

From 1976 to 1981, Helen gave Congregational service at Maryknoll, N.Y. At that time she said, “I’m looking forward to giving service at the Center. I’ve been very much aware over the years that it was the generosity of others that made it possible for me to continue God’s work on the mission field. At this time I’d like to provide that opportunity for others.” She served first in the Development  Department/Direct Mail and then in 1978 in the Nursing Home in supportive services. In 1981, when her condition was declared to be in remission, Helen then researched possibilities in the U.S. where she could continue a ministry in the field of education. She focused her attention on the Southwest Missions, where many of our Sisters served the Native Americans, and was assigned to Gallup, New Mexico, in 1981.

From 1981 to 1988, Helen was a pastoral minister at St. William’s Parish and part-time teacher at the University of New Mexico in Gallup. Then from 1988 to 1998, she worked at the Learning Center of the University of New Mexico in Gallup where she assisted young people, mostly Native Americans, to obtain their high school diplomas. She would travel endless miles to the Navajo, Zuni and smaller reservations to conduct examinations for students so they could obtain high school equivalency. She also worked in the Department of Education at the University administering GED (General Education Development) tests, and training preschool teachers. She was appointed Supervisor of the Child Development Associate Program at the University. This new position provided her as she said, “A tremendous opportunity to expand my skills and talents in all areas of the vast Navajo Reservation and to work with Teachers and students from the small, self-contained Zuni Reservation. As I look over my apostolic life, I see that my interests and commitment are still in the same direction: Toward the formation of youth as future leaders of their people.” She truly believed in young people that they could achieve their potential. In recognition of fifteen years of service to the Native American youth, Helen received an award from the University of New Mexico in 1996.

In 1998, she went to the Maryknoll promotion house in Florida where she assisted Sister Lorraine Carney in fund raising efforts and mission education. The following year Helen returned to Maryknoll, New York, and served as Office Assistant in the Congregational Personnel Department and in 2002 served as Pastoral Minister in our Residential Care facility up to the time of her last illness. Helen’s loving care and dedication to the Sisters on the fourth floor was an outstanding example of someone who lived the words of Jesus: “I have come that you may have life – life in abundance.”

Pastoral ministry for Helen was a way of life. We would see Helen visiting our Sisters, sitting, listening with her presence and gentle smile, being truly present to each one. She was there for the Sisters – always ready to offer someone a little more comfort, a glass of water, move someone to a more comfortable position in her wheelchair, bring a gift of some goodies. She also was always ready to “move in” if one of the other Pastoral Ministers could not come.

Her friendship showed itself in many ways always being supportive and never hesitating to express that support. Indeed, she was a friend in the very deepest sense of the word. Her deep spirituality and faith were shared with a gentleness that brought inner peace to all. She was deeply spiritual and faithful in sharing that prayerfulness with others. Her deep love of God allowed her to be led by God. Centering prayer was an essential part of her life and the source of her strength and compassion for the sufferings of others.

When asked to choose the most satisfying period of her mission life, Sister answered, “My whole missionary life has been very satisfying. No one period stands out. As I have grown and developed, I have lived life to the fullest. My life has been a very happy life and I would not have chosen anything else.”

And so with Helen, we rejoice as she enjoys the fullness of life with God and we celebrate the Liturgy of Resurrection accompanied by her Maryknoll family, former students of Helen from Maryknoll College in the Philippines and our Maryknoll Father Thomas McDonnell.

We extend our condolences to Helen’s family and friends. A Memorial Mass has been planned on April 6, 2005, in Champaign, Illinois.

Let us now celebrate Helen’s fidelity, love and friendship in this Liturgy.