Stories of Justice: A Lifetime of Healing

Parish Nurse Sister Helen Alder
ministers to people on the margins. 

by Mary Flick, CSJ, justice coordinator

When Sister Helen Alder tells her story of how she became a parish nurse, it’s really two tales: her ongoing story of responding to the dear neighbor, and a lifelong story of God preparing her through one life experience for the next.

The 18-year-old Helen entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet having known her whole life that she wanted to be a nurse. But the CSJs didn’t need nurses in 1960; they needed teachers. Six years into her work in the classroom, she awoke one morning and could not speak. A nodule had grown on her vocal cord, from her years of straining to talk above the din of her large classes of first-graders.

After surgery, her doctor told her, “You need to get into another work or it will come back.” She asked him, “You mean like nursing?” Yes, the doctor agreed. “Could you write a prescription for me?” Sister Helen asked. Thus, her longed-for nursing profession had its roots in adversity. “God has done some fabulous things in my life,” she says.

With nine months to wait until her nursing studies began, Helen spoke with one of the sisters at St. Joseph Hospital in Kansas City. The sister suggested that Sister Helen serve as a nurse’s aide. “Those nine months helped me get over my fear,” she says. It also prepared her for her return to the Kansas City hospital after her studies were complete.

When Sister Helen found herself tiring of hospital nursing 12 years later, it was the friend of a friend who was opening a clinic in Alabama and needed a nurse to make it happen. Sister Helen soon found herself in Vredenberg, Alabama, spending her mornings learning about immunizations and the workings of Medicare and Medicaid at a neighboring clinic, then in the afternoons, deciding which way to hang doors in the Vredenberg Clinic construction site.

“I would say to Jesus, ‘I’ve only worked in a hospital. What are you expecting here?’” Sister Helen recalls. In the next two and a half years, she got the clinic rolling, trained a local nurse, and moved back to St. Louis.

She landed at Deaconess Hospital for two years, in their rehabilitation department that prepared her best for the work yet to come. She next found herself at a hospital on the Navaho Reservation in northern Arizona.

“I would still be there,” she says, “but the care given at that federal facility was awful.” A year later, she was back in the St. Louis, doing home health nursing with the Alexian Brothers. “Knowing about rehab is important as a home health nurse,” she says, “and it’s my favorite nursing because I’m one-on-one with a patient.”

When Sister Margaret Guzzardo invited Sister Helen to return to Arizona and do home health nursing there, Sister Helen took a year’s sabbatical to learn Spanish, which she would need as she visited her Hispanic patients in their homes. But the self-diagnosed dyslexic could not pick up Spanish, so Sister Helen worked for 15 months at a Tucson Clinic, as director of home health for Catholic Charities.

In 1995, she came back to Kansas City to visit her family, and ended up staying – first as a nurse with Carondelet Home Care, out of St. Joseph’s Hospital, then in a suburban clinic.

Lastly, she served as a school nurse before being invited to serve as parish nurse at St. Therese, Little Flower Parish. She’s been there now for 14 years. These days, she visits 13 homes the two days a week she works, taking her patients communion as well as her wealth of health care experience, and often going to doctors’ appointments with them.

Sister Helen tells of a 97-year-old patient in a wheelchair who hadn’t been out of her house for eight years. “I discovered she could not see out of one eye,” she recalls. “I thought she might have cataracts.” And she did.

Sister Helen does not take all the credit. “Jesus has given me the ability to ask questions.” While dealing with this woman’s health care needs, Sister Helen secured funds from the Sisters of St. Joseph to have a ramp built so the woman could leave her house.” “I’m a doer,” she says. “I don’t dally around with things.”

“People say to me, ‘You’ll be 74 this year, when will you retire? I answer, ‘How can I retire? These people are like family to me! I’ve been seeing them for 14 years. I never had one person who was hard to get along with.”

Sister Helen speaks of a 78-year-old woman she currently is seeing. “She was a bubbly, lively person. Now, it’s like she’s in a fog.” Next time she visits, Sister Helen says she will bring along some of her drug reference books and check to see if the woman’s medicine is causing the change in her.

“What a blessing!” Sister Helen says of her diversity of clients through the years and the blessing of being a CSJ. She has worked with Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans.

And then there’s her vocational blessing. “I never saw a nun till I was in eighth grade,” Sister Helen says. “But I think my mother always prayed I’d go to the convent. And her favorite saint was St. Joseph.” Helen met the CSJs when she went to high school at St. Teresa’s in Kansas City.

While her vocation may have come from her mother, her love of nursing originated with her father. “My father would have liked to have been a doctor. But it was the Depression, so he got a job with Hallmark instead.”

In 1951 the family moved to a farm in Ray County, Missouri, and she began to nurse their cats and dogs. She is also grateful to have had parents who believed that everyone is a child of God.

“They worked hard to raise us kids to be unprejudiced. Loving the dear neighbor without distinction was pretty easy for me. It’s a gift I have. Along with wanting to help people.” 

For Sister Helen and the Sisters of St. Joseph, it's the love of neighbor without distinction that is the true story of justice, ever unfolding to meet the needs of the times. 

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