Farewell to Sr. Helena O’Connell, 21st November 2022
Good afternoon and welcome. We are gathered today to bid farewell to a woman who is best described as ‘a great lady’, Sr Helena O Connell. We are indeed very sorry to see her depart from us, but we thank God for the gift that she was, for her long life of ninety-four years, lived in the service of God and others, and with faith we entrust her back to God.
Our sincere condolences to Sr Helena’s family who are here –her sisters Tess and Bernadette (our own OLA Sister), her nieces, nephews, grandnieces, grandnephews, relatives, friends, past pupils. Our condolences also to Helena’s two sisters Kitty and Alice who cannot be here with us today. Also, to all OLA Sisters gathered here from Ardfoyle and other communities. Welcome to Fr Pat Murphy (Kilteagan) and to our SMA brothers here on the altar with us today, especially to Fr Malachy Flanagan (provincial) and Fr Eddie O’Connor our chief celebrant. Many others are joined with us online, family members, friends and many others whose lives have been touched by Sr Helena, including especially many Nurses in different parts of England and throughout the world who were trained by Sr Helena in Abeokuta Nigeria as well as many OLA Sisters in Nigeria and other parts of Africa who mourn with us today. Thank you all for being here; you are all very welcome. Today Sr Helena has gone to join her deceased parents Thomas and Mary, as well as her sisters Mary, Bridie and Nora, and her brothers John, Fr. Dan MHM, and Michael. May they all rest in peace.
On the 10th Feb 1947, Helena O’Connell, from her home in the beautiful Portmagee in Co Kerry, wrote to Ardfoyle: “Dear Rev Mother, It is my dearest desire to become a sister in the African missions.” She was just 18 years of age and had only a primary school education. Who would have imagined then what that young woman, full of faith, determination, generosity and passion, would become, the thousands of lives she would touch, the miles she would travel, the joy she would bring, the amazing things she would see and do? It really is amazing what God can do!
Helena made her first profession in March 1950, vowing to live a life totally consecrated to God in the service of God’s Reign, especially in Africa. But her first appointment was to serve in the kitchens in the SMA seminary in Blackrock Road for a month and then to the Cistercian Monastery in Mount Mellary for almost five years. In 1955 she went to London where she trained as a nurse, and finally in 1959 she was sent to her much-loved Africa. She worked as a nurse in the OLA Hospital in Asikuma, Ghana, for three years, and then returned to London to train as a midwife. Over the next ten years she was between England and Africa: 1964 to ‘67 in Akwanga, Northern Nigeria, working as a nurse; 1967 – ’69 in Leigh (England) involved in parish work; 1969 to ’71 once again in Asikuma Hospital in Ghana; ’71 to ’74 in Silverdale in England nursing in the Hospital. During her time in Silverdale she also did a course in Premature Baby Care. Then in July ’74 she returned once more to Africa. This time she was sent to Kenya, where OLA Sisters did not have a mission, but Helena and Sr Mary Jo Ring were sent to help for some years in St Clare’s hospital, Kaplong. In Nov’77 she returned to London to get some training on Tropical Disease in the London Tropical Hospital, following which in May’78 she returned to Nigeria, this time to Abeokuta where she was to spend the next almost thirty years. No doubt Helena left her footprint everywhere she lived and ministered, but it is in Abeokuta that she will certainly be forever remembered just as it is Sacred Heart Abeokuta that remained closest to her heart until her dying day. Yesterday evening there was a most beautiful and moving online Memorial Prayer Service held by some of her past pupils and staff in Sacred Heart Hospital and School of Nursing and Midwifery Abeokuta, and the testimonies they shared speak volumes of the impact she made on their lives and on the lives of countless others. Rev Aloka who organised last night’s service has flown in from Manchester to be here with us, and Philippa has come from London. The Alumni of Sacred Heart sent this beautiful wreath to be laid on Helena’s grave.
As well as those testimonies shared online last night, I have received so many messages of condolence, from all parts of the world. It is outside my scope this afternoon to do justice to the rich contribution that Sr Helena has made and to the person she was. As a nurse, matron and administrator, she was caring, concerned, skilled, efficient, enthusiastic, energetic; as one doctor summed it up last night – she was simply ‘Excellent’. As a teacher and mentor, she was disciplined, had an eagle eye, let nothing slip, witnessed to and expected high standards, had a heart of gold, and ensured each gave of his or her best as she always sought to do herself. As a religious and a missionary, she loved God, loved Africa, loved people, loved the sick and particularly the poor. The leper colony within Sacred Heart Hospital Abeokuta was very close to her heart. I’m told that even while she administered the large hospital and nursing school, she still went twice a week with the nurses to the rural clinics, travelling for hours on rough roads to bring relief and help to those who otherwise would have no health care. She loved the children, always had biscuits for them. No poor person was ever deprived of medical treatment either in the clinics or the hospital. She was a woman of faith and of prayer: no matter how late she returned from the hospital she would always go to the chapel to pray. As a Community person, she was a joy to live with, loved baking cakes, loved a chat at any hour of the day or night, loved telling stories, loved a laugh. As one Sister from Abeokuta said, she was basically an integrated Missionary. She is known to many in Abeokuta as Iya Alamala! May Iya Alamala, Sr Helena, rest in peace and keep all those she is now reunited with in heaven entertained with her hearty laugh and great storytelling, as indeed she surely has many stories to tell.
Sr Helena said farewell to her much-loved Abeokuta in December 2007, and since then she has been here in Ardfoyle. Over the last years, she has certainly known suffering, with painful ulcers on her leg that needed regular dressing and increasingly reduced her mobility, as well as failing eyesight which eventually left her basically blind. Even as her eyesight failed her, from her room, and eventually her bed, in the infirmary she ensured the birds that gathered outside her window were fed. She couldn’t watch the television but until only a few months ago enjoyed listening to the radio and kept up with all the news. Her very faithful sister, Bernadette was never far away from her; You will surely miss her Bernie, but I have no doubt Helena will console and reward you and will continue watching over you from above.
Before I finish, I take this opportunity to thank Nurse Joan and all the staff in the Infirmary as well as Sr. Katherine and the House Council, Michelle and all our staff here in Ardfoyle who show such care and compassion daily to our elderly and infirm sisters. I also thank Sr Helena’s family for the love they showed to her throughout the years. May she, reunited in heaven with her parents, her siblings and all who have gone before her, send many blessings from above.
I now hand you over to Fr Eddie to lead us in our Eucharist.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh go leir.
Kathleen McGarvey OLA
OLA Provincial Leader