Sister Helenann Nelson, SSND
October 20, 1939 – May 19, 2023
Barbara Jean Nelson was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on October 20, 1939, the fifth daughter and seventh child of Carl Reynold Nelson from Sweden and Helen Theresa Galvin from Malden, Massachusetts, where she was a student of SSNDs. Devout Catholics, the couple had Barbara baptized at Holy Name Church, Providence. Two more daughters were later added to their large and loving family. When Barbara began school, they were living in Leonia, New Jersey, where she, too, was educated by SSNDs from first to eighth grades at St. John School. She followed this with high school at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, NJ, graduating in 1957. Later that year, on September 8, she became a Candidate at Villa Assumpta in Baltimore.
At Reception, Barbara received the religious name, Mary Helenann, for her Mother. On completion of the novitiate, she made First Profession on July 25, 1959. Her teaching ministry began at St. Leo School, Irvington, New Jersey, and St Brigid School, Westbury, New York. Together this was eight years of teaching junior high students.
Then began for Helenann (now to be called by her Spanish name, Elena) long and event-filled years as a missionary to South America, when she and her classmate Paula Armstrong were missioned to join our Sisters in Santiago, Chile. They were part of a second group that brought the total of SSNDs in Chile to 13. They were the first who had not already been stationed in Puerto Rico, so they started their new lives by studying Spanish for six weeks at the University in Ponce, P.R. Wearing our second habit in grey, they deplaned in Santiago, on January 15, 1968.
At Colegio St. George, a mission of the Holy Cross Fathers, Elena became a fifth- to eighth-grade teacher and administrator for her first five years in Chile. By 1973, all the sisters in Chile had absorbed the spirit of Vatican II and were struggling to evaluate their ministries at two schools that were established to educate the elite 2% of Santiago’s boys—San Ignacio, a Jesuit School, and Colegio St. George. After intense discussion among themselves, the 12 Wilton missionaries wrote to Provincial Virginia Sebert that “Opportunities are now available for catechetical work in fiscal schools, poblaciónes (poor areas), hospitals and adult groups.” Their Jesuit and Holy Cross colleagues, they knew, were also struggling with the same profound questions about where they should be serving.
At St. George, the Holy Cross Fathers had re-envisioned their school in far-reaching ways, including becoming co-ed and enrolling poor students, thus disrupting the class system. These changes deeply honored the “preferential option for the poor,” the vision of the Latin American Bishops gathered at Medellin, Colombia, in 1969. After years of nation-wide unrest in Chile, a bloody coup on September 11, 1973 ended the Presidency of Salvador Allende and brought in the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Shortly afterwards, St George was taken away from the Holy Cross congregation and placed under a military commander. Elena and Paula, and other faculty, including Sister Brigid Ballasty, SSND, were “accused of infiltration of a Marxist type” and dismissed.
A year after the coup, Elena and Paula had joined two Maryknoll Sisters at their school, San Juan de Dios, in a marginalized area in Santiago; the children there were extremely poor. In late 1973, Cardinal Raul da Silva established the Vicariate of Solidarity to help relatives find the thousands who had disappeared during the coup. The Junta had set up DINA, the National Intelligence Directorate, a vicious secret police. Elena remembered that “in January 1974¸ the Church began asking us to take in people so they could be gotten out of the country. We didn’t hesitate; it was natural to say yes. The Church was asking; it wasn’t something you would have done on your own.” Between October ’73 and November ’75 they harbored about 14 or 15 people—some couples, once a small baby and mother, all innocent and sought by the police. “They would have been killed otherwise. As time went by, we realized the great risk but didn’t stop to think about it; people needed help. People took us in later when we were being hunted.”
The Council at Wilton were not/could not be told about these activities until Councilor Patricia Marie Griffin went to Chile on visitation and learned that a “Juan Segundo” was living in the Sisters’ house. A few days after Pat arrived, Elena drove him to a coordinated relay, and he got safely out of the country through the British Embassy. Pat got the job of going around the house, washing off his fingerprints. “All in all, Pat took the situation quite well,” Elena said later.
In October 1975, Nelson Gutierrez, a leader of the Revolutionary Movement (MIR), was brought, wounded after a shootout, to the SSND house by Holy Cross Father Gerry Whalen. Gutierrez surrendered his weapons to two Holy Cross priests, and his wounds were treated there by Dr. Sheila Cassidy, a British citizen who was later arrested and tortured. By this time, it was clear to the DINA that the Church was the principal opposition to its repressive regime.
At 6:30 am on Sunday, November 2, police came to the SSND convent looking for Elena and Peg Lipsio, a Maryknoll Sister who often visited there. Elena happened to be away at a Maryknoll house in Santiago. Paula said, “I just went out the back door when the police left by the front door.” She got a message to Elena, to the Cardinal and the American Embassy. Elena and Peg went to the central train station, where they would be inconspicuous in the crowd. Later they were sheltered in a house that they left voluntarily because they didn’t want to endanger little children. A few days later, they were safe in the house of the American Consul.
Through intense negotiation by the American Ambassador, they had safe conduct passes, and on November 7, Elena, Paula and Peg Lipsio were brought to the Santiago airport in a caravan of three cars, the first holding a Marine guard. Before they were safely on the plane, a noisy crowd with placards threw trash, rice and beans and coins (symbols of traitors) at them. Their permanent resident visas had been revoked, and “each had signed a statement admitting responsibility in aiding the leftists.” They also stated to the Chilean authorities that “as Christians we could not in conscience turn away these people since it involved the preservation of human life.” They did not alight from the plane at a stopover in Lima, Peru.
From Miami, they called Sister Virginia Sebert and their families, and were met in New York by Virginia and other Sisters, including Elena’s sister, Sister Mary Carole Nelson. Already their thoughts were turning to the companions they had left behind and making anxious efforts to find out about them. They also learned that during the anxious days when they were “on the run,” an appeal had gone out from the Wilton Provincialate to our Generalate, U.S. Church leaders, the LCWR and CMSM, and all SSND provinces and communities that they be found and protected. The response was so great that officials at the State Department later said that they “had never received such an avalanche of letters, calls and telegrams.”
Helenann and Paula gave community service at Wilton until the following August, and in Bohemia, Long Island, before enrolling at Pennsylvania State University, and receiving the M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction in May 1977. First as Teacher and then as Principal, Helenann served at Most Holy Redeemer School, on East 4th Street, in New York, a school founded by Mother Caroline. In 1982, Wilton opened a new mission in Canto Grande, Peru, a place where “it hadn’t rained in 19 years and was always overcast and gray; a spot some thought God forgot because there was no sunshine 360 days a year.” Elena and Paula pioneered this new mission, living for a time in one room in the house of a woman who kept chickens, rabbits and pigeons as house mates. Later they had a house in an “invasion,” one built as the poor did, on any available land without legal permission. A Government “State of Emergency” was in force amid much unrest over the dire economic situation.
Elena and Paula were administrators and teachers at Jesuit-sponsored Fe y Alegria #23 school. Elena later worked for six years in Pastoral Ministry and as SSND Initial Formation Director at Senor de la Esperanza in Canto Grande. Both Sisters “deeply admired the great faith and simplicity of the people and were very grateful for the goodness of our Canadian Sisters in nearby Comas, who truly lived SSND hospitality.”
After a time of study, service at Wilton, and renewal at the Sangre de Cristo program in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1996, Elena was able to return to Santiago Chile, because the Pinochet regime had ended. She served in Andacollo Parish, and in Los Andes as Pastoral Minister and later Coordinator of the District of Latin America. From 2005 to 2012. she served as District Leader of Latin America. Elena contributed much to the work of forming the Province of Latin America and the Caribbean and gave herself totally to the challenge of bringing together diverse communities of SSNDs into the new ALC Province.
Elena remained in Los Andes until 2015, when she realized it was time to return to the AM Province at Wilton, and to her family. She moved to The Watermark in August of 2021 with the VND community. Here she continued her service in the finance office until she became ill. Helenann died at St. Vincent Hospital, Bridgeport, on May 19, 2023.
Under all her names, Barbara/Helenann/Elena was forward-looking, and loved for her quiet presence, sense of humor, and dedication to the task at hand. She rarely spoke of the courage that had permeated the challenges of her missionary life. At her wake service, her sister Claire Dale began her tribute with these words, “The courageous are not carefree; the brave are not thrill-seekers. Sister Helenann was both courageous and brave. She embraced the gifts of the Holy Spirit with which she was endowed at Confirmation to levels most of us never consider.”
Mass of Christian Burial and Wake Service were celebrated at St. Andrew Church, Bridgeport, on June 1, 2023. Sister Eileen Shea, using words written by Sister Elaine Polari, led the wake service, at which Sister Claire Bonneau read. Msgr. Robert Crofut presided over the liturgy and gave the homily. At the placing of the symbols, Sister Shawn Kavanagh read, while Pat Ferrick and profession classmates Janice Algie, Leonora Tucker, Margaret Strauch and Bernadette Alfieri placed the symbols. Niece Susan Carletta served as lector, while Sister Fran Butler read from You Are Sent, and Sister Bernadette Ballasty led the Prayers of the Faithful. Niece Barbara and Sister Kathy Fullerton presented the gifts. Sisters Anne McCarthy and Bernadette Alfieri served as Eucharistic Ministers. Many family members of several generations, led by Helenann’s sister, Claire, were gathered with “fast friends” of Helen’s profession class and many others from Watermark and Baltimore.
Cremains were buried at St. Mary Cemetery, Bethel, Connecticut.
- Sister Kay O’Connell