Sister Mary Helen Rogers, OLVM died January 13 at the age of 100. This tribute to her is reprinted from THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC.
It all began over forty years ago, when after service as a Papal Volunteer in Belize, I knew I couldn’t return to start the graduate program at University of Chicago I’d planned. After a year of living with poverty, I needed a more gradual transition back to the wealthy U.S. Fortunately, my aunt, a Victory Noll sister, ran a Center in one of Denver’s worst neighborhoods. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty had provided funding for a summer program for children, which my cousin and I offered to direct. It was a match made in heaven!
Our aunt and her community happily introduced us to the neighborhood, the local attractions, and best of all, the mountains. Although they worked daily with grindingly difficult situations, violent gangs, drug and alcohol addictions and suffering people, they were a remarkably cheerful and upbeat bunch, celebrating everyday miracles. Dinners with them were always fun, with dessert an essential, and the table often decorated. Perhaps because they’d given me such a warm welcome, or because I loved the mountains so much, I stayed in Denver, completed the graduate work, and married.
Some eight years later, our oldest son was feeling his lack of grandparents. His only living grandfather was in another city, but his sister, my aunt, had always been a joyful presence in his life. He approached her shyly: “would you be my foster grandma?” She of course was delighted, and scooped the kindergartener into her arms. “Of course! I’d be thrilled!”
The other children quickly assumed that my aunt was Granny; it didn’t bother them that she was also “Sister.” One day, they were leaving her office as a client entered. “’Bye Granny!” each called sweetly. She apologized for the interruption to the woman who said graciously, “Oh Sister, you be with your grandchildren!” Over thirty years later, slight embarrassment crosses my aunt’s face as she tells the story. “She didn’t quite get the concept of nuns. So I told her this was my niece and her children before any rumors could get started.”
Granny had a knack for gifts and notes on each child’s birthday, candy for the “major religious feasts,” which included Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, and root bear floats. “Royalty were never treated as well; no child was ever cherished as much as we were,” one daughter remembers. Faithfully, despite blizzards, she’d attend First Communions, Confirmations and graduations. Now engaged in their own work with nonprofits, the children see her as a model of how to live with compassion and treat all people with a profound and gentle respect. From her they learned that justice is about making love tangible in ways large and small. To be continued…