SEVENTY-six-year-old Josephite Sister Helen Sullivan may have had her “gallop stopped for a while” by a hip replacement but her enthusiasm for Catholic Mission work remains undimmed.
Sr Helen, 54 years professed with the Federated Josephite order, has been inspiring students at schools throughout Brisbane archdiocese with stories of her astonishing experiences in mission work in such countries as Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea.
She calls her work with Catholic Mission “one of my life’s major passions” and has visited many parishes to spread the message in the past 18 years.
“I have a strong wing (arm) for this work,” she said.
“In fact I can’t understand why this work is not everyone’s passion given the good it achieves.”
Among Sr Helen’s many stories, which she says often leave students “gob-smacked”, is of her visit to a mountain village near the West Papua-PNG border in the vicinity of the town of Green River in 1989.
She had returned to PNG after a long break when she became ill in 1972 and had to return to Australia.
“The name of the mountain village translated as ‘watched by angels’ but its residents suffered from a range of diseases including malaria, tuberculosis and leprosy,” she said.
“No one left the village and no one visited it either.
“The mortality rate amongst people, particularly the very young and old, in this isolated village was very high.
“People were known to bury their babies under their houses – that way they could keep them near their family to be looked after.
“Because of the prevalence of leprosy, outsiders referred to the location as ‘Smelly Mountain’.
“Certainly I’ll never forget the smell that surrounded sufferers from the disease.
“I suppose another reason I often think of the village is that no one should have leprosy in this day and age.”
Sr Helen’s 10-hour trek to the mountain village started from a small convent at the mountain base. Accompanying her were two local men and a nurse.
“I’ll always remember it was night when we got there,” she said.
“As we reached the top, the two men with me whistled some sort of signal.
“Out of the jungle came near-naked men and women – about eight.
“They kept feeling me to see if I was real and not a ghost so I must have been the first white person many of them had seen … I was not allowed to touch them.
“Apparently they believe the mountain is the whole world. Nothing else exists.”
Sr Helen and the nurse stayed a fortnight setting up a school and clinic, preparing the way for an indigenous teacher and doctor.
“I later heard these services had stopped running partly because of difficulties getting supplies up the mountain.
“Also the teacher and doctor who had come from outside the village eventually ran away, becoming afraid of evil spirits.
“However, since then they’ve overcome their difficulties and now have established a basic health centre and a school.”
Apart from PNG, Sr Helen spent some time working with the Sion Sisters in the Philippines and the Daughters of Charity in Indonesia, immersing herself in these cultures, to “keep my hand in with developing countries” as she puts it.
These days she is also involved in mentoring young people interested in assisting in Josephite Community Aid. Sr Helen mentors at the order’s community in Ashfield, Sydney.
She speaks fondly of 20-year-old Kaitlin Ritchie, an engineering student who has accompanied her as “a young face” on school visits.
“Kaitlin got in touch with us and said ‘I want a gap year but don’t want to do it overseas and I don’t want to waste the 12 months. I want to give something back into the community’.”
Sr Helen explains such local mission work is very important to help Australia’s young people broaden their perspectives.
“My job is now to make people aware – kids I’ve spoken to are often gob- smacked by the stories I have to tell.
“They say: ‘We didn’t know anything about all this, what can we do, how can we help?’
“I say: ‘Just go home be aware of what’s going on under your nose’.
“For many, this will be the starting point of their involvement in such work.”
The role of Josephite Community Aid is to befriend newly arrived refugees and make them feel welcome.
“For example many Sudanese arrivals had never seen the sea before, so we took them to the beach,” Sr Helen said.
“We also try to get refugees linked to community support networks.”
As far as adults are concerned, Sr Helen acknowledges there “is much apathy”.
“However, often when I talk at Mass people will see me afterwards and thank me for telling these stories.
“‘We need to know what’s happening’, they will say.
“So I am constantly challenging people to share out of their own abundance.
“Because unless people help us to buy medicine and educational resources, I might as well go home and do some knitting.”
Talking to Sr Helen, it’s clear she has translated her desire to work for the marginalised in the overseas mission field into work with refugees seeking to make their home in Australia.
And her enthusiasm continues unabated despite that recent hip replacement.
So what’s the secret to Sr Helen’s abiding passion for work with Catholic Mission?
“Humanitarian endeavours must be built on the Gospel message otherwise people tend to burn out,” she answers. “Someone has to proclaim this message about Jesus, doing so through the life they live.
“Christ was always concerned for the marginalised and I think refugees are the most marginalised of people – they usually can’t speak our language and they’ve often suffered terribly in their home countries.”
Sr Helen said “we need these people as much as they need us”.
“We need to hear their stories – often terrible stories from those forced to be child soldiers or women who’ve been constantly raped and in fear of their lives. “Hearing such stories challenges us to extend Christ’s compassion to the less fortunate.
“We also come to realise how lucky we are and can appreciate and give thanks for our own good fortune to live in Australia.”
Then Sr Helen returns to the theme with which she started our conversation – that of the Catholic Mission symbol with its two hands each stretching towards the other.
“One is God’s hand and the other is ours,” she said.
“We can stretch only as far as God allows us, for the human hand on its own is so weak.
“The whole work of Catholic Mission is to move that human hand to touch the hand of God.
“Once this happens life for this person will never be quite the same again.”
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
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