Sister Helen Phillips, MM

Born: April 14, 1926
Entered: September 6, 1944
Died: February 15, 2021

In the name of the Maryknoll Sisters I wish to extend our welcome and our condolences to Helen’s family and friends who are with us today celebrating Helen’s life! We extend a welcome via Zoom to Helen’s sister, Patricia and brother Robert.

Helen was born April 14, 1926 in Hollis, Long Island, NY, and was the daughter of Patrick Phillips and Margaret (Murphy) Philips. She was the fifth of eight siblings. Her parents, her sisters, Sister Anne, a Sister of Mercy, and Margaret, her brothers, Father Henry, Edward, and William have all predeceased her. Helen graduated from high school in 1944, and entered Maryknoll several months later on September 6, 1944 from Incarnation Parish in Bellaire, NY.

At the Reception Ceremony on March 7, 1945 Helen received the name Sister Maureen Therese and made her First Profession of Vows at Maryknoll on March 7, 1947 and her Final Profession on the same day three years later in California. In August 1947, Helen was assigned to the novitiate in Valley Park, Missouri to teach baking and Gregorian Chant to the postulants, most of whom were older than she was, as Helen had just turned 21. Throughout the next years Helen received various mission assignments in the United States. Helen worked in the Maryknoll Society’s seminary kitchen in California for five years and at the same time ministered to migrant workers. It was in this ministry that Helen taught herself Spanish.

After Helen’s first renewal, she returned to California working in catechetics as well as training Girls Scouts, although Helen herself had never been a Girl Scout! Finally, after years of catechetical ministry from kindergarten through high school, Helen was assigned to Maryknoll Teachers College where she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Education. Remembering those days Helen stated that her experience was to “do all your practice first and then learn the science behind it all!”

After graduation, Helen was assigned to Huancane, Peru to assist in the establishment of an indigenous novitiate. While on board the ship to Peru the assignment was changed so Helen went with Sister Magdalene Mary McCloskey to the town of Juli on the shores of Lake Titicaca situated 13,500 feet above sea level. They were the first sisters to ever work in the town and were looked upon with a certain amount of suspicion because the people were not sure who they were and why they were there.

The area was wracked with whooping cough and 6 to 10 children died daily. Helen contracted the disease and also came down with pleurisy. For this reason, in 1961, she was reassigned from the 13,500-foot altitude and frigid temperatures of Juli, Peru to Riberalta, Bolivia which was 2 feet below sea level with the searing heat of the Bolivian jungle. While Helen had heard and seen some movies about the Maryknoll mission in the Bolivian jungles, she felt none of this had actually prepared her for the reality. She said she told herself: “she would never be able to stay there… only to live happily there for five years loving the place and the people more each day.”

Helen was then asked to return to Peru to work in Arequipa in a fledgling high school the Sisters had begun. In order for staff to receive state salaries the school needed to be under the Peruvian Department of Education. Helen valiantly studied to revalidate her teaching degree and after taking 10 exams in geography, history, culture, flora and fauna of Peru, giving a demonstration class and writing a thesis all in Spanish, Helen became a licensed Peruvian professor with a Peruvian degree which was quite an accomplishment.

In 1975, Helen returned to Maryknoll, NY to become part of the Mission Education Team. She and Sister Mary Ellen Manz took on the challenge of mission education in 27 Dioceses from Pennsylvania, south to Florida and west to Ohio. She continued in Promotion till she was elected Coordinator of the Center Community in 1978.

Responding to a request made to the Leadership Team, Helen was interviewed for a position at the National Office of the Propagation of the Faith in New York City. This ministry entailed writing and propagating mission educational materials for high schools and colleges throughout the United States. Helen wrote and published nine different programs and gave workshops in various dioceses throughout the country. Helen also assisted in the writing of the Bishops’ letter on Mission entitled “To the Ends of the Earth” which was published in 1986 and also wrote the summary edition of this document for the Bishops’ Conference.

In 1993 till 1997 Helen accepted the position of Orientation Director in the Maryknoll Fathers’ Language Institute in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Upon returning to the Center for renewal, she accepted the challenge of being named the Maryknoll Sisters WEB Director. The WEB was in its infant stage and it was a time of learning new skills to present the Maryknoll mission. Due to all of Helen’s work and dedication along with several other Maryknoll Sisters the office later developed into what became known as the Creative Productions Office.

In 2011, Helen accepted the position of Photo Librarian and without really knowing what the task would be, agreed to update the famous “Yellow Book”, the book of the pictures of every Maryknoll Sister. This huge undertaking was finally completed in the Spring of 2013.

In March 2019, Helen requested a change to the Chi Rho Community and a year later transferred to the Eden Community where she was lovingly cared for by the Staff until her death. I end this letter with Helen’s message which she wrote after she finished writing the history of her life Maryknoll.

“After writing all this down in some sort of chronological order, I am amazed at the workings of God in my life. I have been asked to do many different tasks in many different places, different cultures, among different peoples, and I liked them all! When Mother Mary Joseph said: “Let us go forward and see what the Lord has in store for us,” I’m sure she was thinking of any Maryknoll Sisters, like myself, who would be asked to do things that needed to be done, and for which they had not been particularly trained. Somehow or other they were successful and God’s work was accomplished and God’s love was made visible to all. God has been so very good to me. He has shown me the plans he had for me and enabled me to fulfill them as best I could with his help given in so many ways and I am so grateful!”

Sister Helen Phillips will be interred in our Maryknoll Sisters Cemetery, Maryknoll, New York. We are grateful to Sister Dora Nuetzi, MM for presiding at this Memorial Communion Service and final blessing before burial. We also express gratitude for those who made the virtual participation possible.