September 20, 2009
Eulogy by Bette Moslander CSJ
We come together this evening to honor and to celebrate the life of Sister Helen Urban, a Sister of St. Joseph for 75 years who died around supper time on Thursday, Sept. l7 at the Motherhouse. Helen’s death comes as something of a shock, not because she was not ready to die, but as far as we knew she was neither the oldest nor the sickest. As a matter of fact I remember with clarity that as we were leaving the Chapel to go to the cemetery for the burial of Sister Venard a few weeks ago, Sister Helen and I coincided in each other’s space as we were reached the chapel door. At that time she reached up, pulled me down to her level and smiling, her eyes laughing, she said in a loud clear voice, “I’m the next one. Remember what I say, I’m the next one.”
In her characteristic direct, no-nonsense manner Helen has left a long and beautiful “life review”. It is a very human account of the woman she has become. She recounts the ups and downs of her growing-up years on the plains of western Kansas. She writes with uncompromising honesty about her life as a young woman as she attempts to adjust to the rigors and restrictions of convent protocol, and the pain of frequent moves in her early teaching career. An earthy kind of woman, Helen never hesitated to say it the way she saw it. So let us reflect on her life.
Helen was born in Topeka, Kansas on July 10, 1914 and baptized at St. Joseph’s Church. Not long after her birth the Urban family returned to Pfeifer, Kansas to live on a farm that Helen’s grandmother had given them. Helen’s two sisters, Irene and Marcelle and her brother Raymond were born there. Her family, like that of so many of our Sisters from western Kansas, was not well to do, but they were a close family and faithful and dedicated to the Church and their Catholic faith. The small town of Pfeifer was a school mission of Sisters from Concordia, and each fall the sisters came to teach in the parish. Several of the incidents Helen records in her life review give insights into day-by-day parish life in those days: baptisms, first communions and first confessions; pastors and sister teachers; births and deaths; real life, lived in the flow of seasons in a rural community and in the dynamic and very human reality of a small Catholic village on the plains of Kansas.
Recalling her schooling in the elementary school there, in Pfeifer, Helen remarks “As I studied conscientiously under the supervision of the Sisters they planted the seed of my vocation. Their deep faith and love far surpassed their human limitations. The Sister who stands out in my memory was Sister Helena Robben, a fine teacher who ruled with an iron hand, but at heart was a real friend for us, especially outside the formal school time.”
One touching memory of those early days, was the death of her little brother Raymond who was crushed in a farm accident, “He lived three days,” she says, “but there was no hope. Dad blamed himself and became a changed man; my mother grew old before her time. Our deep faith in God finally triumphed and we came to see the accident as a part of God’s plan, strengthening our trust in God’s Providence.”
Helen wanted to go on to high school but there was no high school in the town. Eager for learning she took the 8th grade over again and Sister Alcantara gave her extra supplementary work. Her fortunes changed when Sister Helena was assigned to Tipton as principal of the high school there. Recognizing Helen’s ability and desire for an education, her family with Sister Helena’s help, made arrangements for Helen to board with the Hake family and go to school. After graduation, and a few months of discerning and hesitating, Helen decided that she really did want to become a Sister of St. Joseph and set her plans in motion. She arrived in Concordia on a beautiful, clear, cold day in February, put on the postulants’ uniform and her life in the convent was underway.
“I did find the postulancy and novitiate a big challenge,” she wrote, “but I took it all in stride, not considering anything too difficult or unreasonable. Some times however it seemed such a waste of time to ask so many trivial permissions. All seemed routine and I don’t remember ever spiritualizing them.” The early years of Helen’s life in the convent were a mixture of wonderful experiences of closeness to God, and difficult experiences of putting up with the all too human limitations and trivial injustices of the hierarchical rules and customs of religious life of that time. Frank and uncensored in her memories, Helen reflects on the first year on mission where she was assigned as a cook and music teacher, and in both departments found herself untrained and overburdened. Mid-year the Sister who taught the upper four grades fell ill and Helen was asked to take over her classroom. She concludes her account of her first mission experience in these words, “So the year passed. I had acquired a great deal of missionary experience, had my first taste of teaching and procured my precious teaching certificate.”
The following summer Helen began the process of achieving her college education. That fall she began a three-year assignment in Michigan where she taught the seventh grade, returning to Marymount each summer for a few more hours toward her degree. In the years that followed Helen experienced short term assignments in various western Kansas schools. Her story of those years provides a good historical account of the rigors and the poverty of the Church in western Kansas in the first half of the 20th century. It was an immigrant Church and each small town had its own character determined by the concentration of ethnic majorities, Volga German, French, and Irish, the people, strong in the faith, but poor in most other ways.
In 1943 she was needed as an upper grade teacher in Aurora, Kansas, where in Helen’s words she experienced some feeling of security in her life. One senses that it was here that Helen began to come into her own as an educator. During these years,” she writes, “I experimented with ability groups within the upper four grades. Parents cooperated beautifully because they could see that their children were experiencing success. Monsignor Fraser practically lived in the school and often gave me points in teaching techniques.”
Six years later, on to Junction City to teach in the 8th grade! “The students there were very lively and it took a great deal of scheming to keep ahead of them,” Helen remembered “but I enjoyed them very much because they presented me with a real challenge.” There were added duties teaching at the Fort every Sunday.
In 1952 Helen returned to Herndon, this time as Superior of the mission for six years. Reflecting on that experience Helen said, “During those six year I always did the best I knew, but looking back I see that I unknowingly made many mistakes. It was a great learning experience.” During her time in Herndon Helen lost both of her parents in a short period of time. It was a great blow for her. By the time her two terms of Superior were over she was able to acknowledge, “I knew that I loved the place, the people and the school and I hated to leave. I had found peace there, in the midst of tears and fears.”
Returning to Junction City in 1958, Helen was appointed principal at a time that the enrollment in the school was bursting the seams. “I felt extremely handicapped in administering the school in a professional way. First of all I was expected to teach full time; I had no office; there were no files or records. There were constant withdrawals and new enrollments due to the Fort Riley school population.” These were hard years but gradually Helen organized the school, setting up a central library, creating an office and a good record system. By the end of her term as principal the school was in better order.
Vatican II 1963—65 was a critical event in Helen’s life. On one page that she left in her personal file she wrote, “The Holy Spirit has been very present in my life since Vatican II. I welcomed the word freedom, but I was not sure of the real meaning at first. I came to realize that it meant the right choices, the right values in living my religious life. I soon became aware that I was the one to make the ordinary decisions in my life, not my superiors. It was a great feeling and my self-image developed tremendously.”
She seems to have come to a new love for the Church and a new sense of herself. She continued “The Church took on an entirely new meaning—The People of God. It seemed that I became one with every person and my commitment to make the reign of God evident became very, very real. From here on my vows became very special for I could see the purpose of each as being related to God’s People.”
Her mission life went on and she breathed a sigh of relief when she was moved to Plainville where the enrollment was less than half that of Junction City. Once again the school office and records called for Helen’s administrative skills but three years later she moved on to Grand Island where she served for the next nine years until the grade school closed. “I learned to love Grand Island, the place, my work, and the Sisters that touched my life. It was there that The Lord came to share with me his many graces and blessings. I learned what real love for God and neighbor meant, due to the many spiritual advantages, wonderful confessors and meaningful liturgies. It was there that I discovered that it is not the work that matters so much, but how much love for God and neighbor is brought to the work.”
Following her years in Grand Island and saddened by the close of the grade school in 1975, Helen returned to Manhattan for another six-year term. By 1985 Helen, feeling herself moving toward retirement from the classroom took on work in Junction City directing the Renew Program for the Parish, and helping with the religious education program. During those years she also enjoyed and actively assisted Sister Viatora and Sister Mary Esther at St. Clare House, a home for women in need of shelter and assistance.
In 1991 Helen retired at Medaille Center where she served as a Hospital Visitor and was active in the parish. Reluctantly, she retired to the Motherhouse in 2002, having spent 50 years in the parish schools, and several more years in various volunteer services in Junction City and Salina.
These few vignettes of Helen’s life, moving much too frequently, from one school to another, provide a telling account of the energy and the self-emptying love that characterized the lives of many of our women who contributed toward the education in the faith of hundreds of children throughout this central plains country. Her life, not unlike that of hundreds of other grade and high school teachers, was spent laying the foundation of the Church here in Kansas.
So now, we remember Helen, her steadfastness and her tireless energy in serving others. Her life reminds us of the letter Paul wrote to Timothy (II, 1: 5-10). “We find ourselves thinking of your sincere faith—faith that first belonged to your family…and which we are confident you also had…The Spirit gave you no cowardly spirit, but rather one that made you strong, loving and wise…” Helen, your life has been poured out generously, lovingly, in the service of the Church and God’s people. We give thanks for you and for the simple, direct forthrightness of your life. As you surrender your life into God’s loving hands may you delight in the fulfillment you know now, hearing the voice of your Divine Lover, “Come my beloved, enter into my everlasting peace.” We join you in your own great “AMEN.”
MY LIFE AFTER VATICAN TWO
By Sister Helen Urban
The Holy Spirit has been very present in my life since Vatican Two. I welcomed that word freedom, hut I was not sure of the real meaning at first. I came to realize that it meant the right choices, the right values in living my religious life. I soon became aware that I was ‘the the one to make the ordinary decisions in my life, not my superiors. It was a great feeling and my self-image developed tremendously.
The Church took on an entirely new meaning- The People of God. It seemed that I became one with every person and my commitment to make the reign of God evident became very very real. From here on my vows became very special for I could see the purpose of each as being related to God’s people.
My vow of poverty gives me the freedom to become very in¬volved in helping spread the Good News in so many ways. Only by relinquishing possessions can I minister to the poor. My vow of chastity makes me free to keep moving. I can Lake risks which married people with concern for their families and for each other cannot be asked to take. Obedience is a public statement. that I bind myself to 1 I stun within and am commissioned by a community through its leaders.
Prayer has always been very important to me, but during these years after Vatican Two, my prayer became important in developing a contemplative attitude toward life. It helps me keep a proper perspective of life. It helps me focus on the most important values of the kingdom. Sincere and regular prayer returns me to the center, love which is the greatest gift and the greatest commandment.
Finally our culture is characterized by segregation and alienation. My religious community, by living the Gospel. can challenge these structures that depersonalize and alienate; it proclaims an alternative way. “This is how all will know you For my disciples, your love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
The Eucharist has always been the heart, of my spiritual life as long as I can remember. However, when the Mass was allowed in the vernacular, my longed for dream was fulfilled. It is now and always will be the most fundamental expression of the reality of my life.
For me the vowed life after Vatican Two was a deep call and a deep grace. LUMEN GENTIUM called me to enrich, challenge, encourage and stimulate the Church by my life and my action.