Birth: Nov. 30, 1918
Profession: Feb. 2, 1949
Death: Apr. 11, 2009
On November 30, 1918, two and a half months premature, Helen Dorothy Donohoe, the youngest of ten children, was born and baptized in San Francisco during the influenza pandemic into a loving and faith-filled family to Patrick and Frances Brogan Donohoe. Her father and all her grandparents were immigrants from Ireland. One of her earliest memories was of the family gathering around a large dining room table to say the rosary, a devotion that her father began and which lasted her lifetime.
When she was only four years old, her father died of leukemia, leaving her mother a 41-year-old widow with ten vibrant children. Helen reported that all her siblings were at home until she was six years old, when her oldest brother, Hugh, later bishop, entered the seminary. She attended St. Agnes parochial school and Notre Dame High School. During these years two of her older sisters became Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur; two brothers entered the Jesuits; other siblings married. When Helen was seventeen, her mother would not allow her to enter the Notre Dame novitiate, and her brother would not allow her to attend a state college, so she chose the San Francisco College for Women, Lone Mountain, run by the Religious of the Sacred Heart.
Helen reported being very aware of how prayerful the nuns were. After three years of college, she wanted to enter religious life, but her mother insisted that she finish college. She even recalled being torn between the Notre Dame Sisters and the Religious of the Sacred Heart. The latter won out.
In August of 1940 she arrived, with three other candidates, at Kenwood, Albany, NY—the novitiate of the Society of the Sacred Heart. Her eyes were so bad that she ended up working in the sacristy and the library, instead of doing needlework. On February 22, 1943, Helen pronounced First Vows in the Society, and returned to the Academy in San Francisco, to teach in the elementary school. In May of 1945 she was sent to bed for three months, when doctors feared she had incipient tuberculosis. The life of Sister Josefa was a great help during that time. Afterwards, she was sent to recuperate in San Diego, Old Town, where the first Religious of the Sacred Heart were forming a community and preparing to move to the newly-founded San Diego College for Women, later to become the University of San Diego.
By 1946 Helen returned to Atherton, enrolled at Stanford, and began work on an M.A. in history, later changed to economics—a long, arduous journey. During this time she was finally professed in Rome on February 9, 1949. By 1951 she received her M.A. in Economics, and was assigned at Lone Mountain to teach both history and economics and to be Junior counselor. From that year until 1967, Helen held a variety of positions at Lone Mountain: professor, counselor, assistant to the Dean, until she was named assistant to the Superior, and later Superior.
One of the young nuns, Mary Jane Tiernan, who arrived from the noviceship at Lone Mountain at that time reports: “Dear Helen broke ranks and hugged me in welcome. I will never forget her and that warm hug in the midst of an austere scene. She was always warm and loving to me, the youngest in the community. Because of her I maintained my equilibrium in a changing world. She had a laugh, almost a talking giggle, when she thought someone or something was funny. I can still hear it. Throughout my life she was a loving presence. I do know that she was anxious, but she always had that ready Irish sense of humor despite her fears.”
By 1975 Helen became a member of the Western Province Provincial Team, serving with two provincials. In this time period she took a sabbatical, spending a year at Oxford, England, and having exciting excursions in Europe. In 1985 she was superior at the Society’s retirement facility in Atherton, followed by two years in charge of hospitality at the provincial house in St. Louis. After returning west, Helen worked in hospital chaplaincy, and eventually for nine years as Director of Oakwood retirement center.
Those who knew Helen best describe her as gentle, loving, deeply loyal and full of life, open to possibilities, responsible, but light. As one friend said,”Helen was an absolute delight; she was full of fun and stories. She evoked many good laughs.” One of her great gifts was that of hospitality in a variety of roles. People felt loved and cared for when Helen was around,
Her close friend, Sr. Be Mardel, said,” Helen was physically fearful—terrified of being on the edge of a precipice, wary of heights and speed and winding mountain roads. She was, however, steadfast. One could always count on her; she was always ready to help, to support, to listen, and always ready to laugh at herself. A few years ago, Helen said to me, ‘You know, I’m ready for anything,’ and she added, ‘I’ve had a big grace.’ And, indeed, she did, and that deep peace and calm stayed with her right up to the end.”
In 2004 Helen moved to Oakwood, where, surrounded by her Sisters, she died peacefully on Holy Saturday night, April 11, 2009. Mary Jane Tiernan wrote, “When I heard that Helen had gone to God, I knelt down in my house and prayed for her and to her. What joy and love she nurtured me with during the years. I know she now enjoys Life to the fullest with a shy smile and twinkle in her eyes.”