History of the Order of Saint Helena

The Rev Canon Mary Michael Simpson, OSH

The Rev Canon Mary Michael
Simpson, OSH

OSH and Change

By The Rev. Canon Mary Michael Simpson, OSH

A paper for the History of Women Religious Conference delivered June 19, 2001 at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

As a psychoanalyst, I often tell people that the only security on this earth is in the ability to cope with change. Insofar as that is true, the Order of St. Helena should by this time be secure indeed.

In 1945 the nine Sisters who formed the autonomous house of the Order of St. Anne in Versailles, Kentucky and administered Margaret Hall School were released from the Order of St. Anne and formed the Order of St. Helena. Surviving the profound changes involved, identity, habit, form of government, and spirituality, I believe strengthened these Sisters for the half-century to come.

The Versailles Sisters had always been forward looking: teaching psychology to the staff, so that they could deal with the schoolgirls in a more helpful way, bringing Jewish people over from Nazi Germany to teach in the school, and establishing a Conference week so that they could undertake study of special and often controversial topics. But now in the new Order they established a convent in Helmetta, NJ, so that the incoming Sisters could have at least two years of grounding in the Religious Life before being expected to teach in the school.

The upheavals of the 1960s brought changes in behavior. Sisters wanted to be involved in various social issues, and we had to work through as a community the right of the individual to take a stand in her own name, and what was required before one could do so in the name of the Order.

Though Vatican Council II had no canonical jurisdiction over us, it affected us profoundly. Liturgical reform was in the air, and if the Liturgy, which was the center of our lives, could change; then nothing could go unquestioned. After an early Michael Novak article on Religious renewal, our oldest sister pinned up her skirt and pinned down her wimple and came into the common room saying "I¹m the new nun!" Out of all this came a search for meaning and authenticity. The fact that something had always been done was no longer sufficient reason for continuing it. Tradition was still to be considered, but no longer had a strangle-hold over us. We had a feeling for the first time that work done should be done not only under obedience, but it should have meaning to the person who did it This had a profound effect on the stationing of Sisters. I remember the shock when I had been brought home from Africa of being asked for the first time in my 15 years in community what I would LIKE to do.

The 1970s presented us with the question of the ordination of women. When the Diaconate was opened to women, the Council of the Order passed a resolution recognizing that fact and urging any Life Professed Sister who felt she had a vocation to apply. Three of us did so, became engaged in that struggle, and were ordained to the priesthood in the Spring of 1977 (see the "Women's Ministry" section of the Episcopal Church website for historical details and photos). This, again, affected stationing. It also freed us from dependence on male clergy for the Sacraments. It lost us some supporters and gained others. A small minority of Sisters opposed the ordination of women, and with very little discussion, it was assumed that they were free to follow their consciences.

In the late 1980s we undertook a self-study with a professional facilitator in which all members of the Order took part. This went on for six years, and transformed communication among us. It was helpful in creating openness and an increase in trust. We understood and came to operate on the basis of consensus, rather than by order from the Superior.

Our form of government has evolved over the years. When the Order was founded, the Sisters had previously had a Mother Superior. She said she did not want to continue in that role, as she did not feel she had the vision of a foundress. The Sisters accepted the Father Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross as their Superior. The Assistant Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross was our Assistant Superior, and there was no connection between the houses of our Order, except through him. We had no say in the election of the Superior, and no vote in any legislation which affected us.

In the mid 1960s, the Father Superior appointed a Sister as Assistant Superior, with the appointment approved by the OSH Chapter. The next step in 1974 was his nominating several candidates for Superior from which the Sisters were to elect.

Then the Sisters elected our own Superior. After two Sisters had served, and worn themselves out with lengthy terms, in 1997 there was no Sister who was both able and willing to give up her ministry and be Superior.

We elected instead a Leadership Council of four members to govern the Order between Chapters, with an Executive Council as counterbalance. This has been successful enough that most of us would not want to return to having a Superior.

Our Constitution and Custumal were rewritten in 1996 and are in the process of being revised again to reflect our current practices.

Our numbers have always been small, and that has affected the works of the Order. We have closed works when we felt we should: the school in Kentucky, our work in Bolahun, Liberia; Nassau in the Bahamas; and Seattle. Two Sisters now live alone under a provision called "Extended Service" established when a Sister wanted to remain and continue her ministry after a convent had been closed.

We were in the beginning not only small, but fairly homogeneous. All of us were white, and came from the east cost of this country, from Boston to South Carolina. Now we are much more diverse. We have a Sister from Puerto Rico, and now have two from Ghana, and others from West Africa who are in the process of applying. In addition to our changing ideas, this cultural diversity and the increasing age of new postulants has affected our way of integrating people into the Community.

During the most tumultuous years we lost nine Life Professed Sisters, whose vows were dispensed and who went on to a contemplative community, to marriage, and to lesbian relationships. It seems to me the loosening of the structure resulted in those losses, which was difficult, but I believe good for the Order and for those who left. With those and the deaths of some of our older Sisters, we realized several years ago that we must either grow or die.

We have in the past few years begun to recruit. In the past this was anathema to us as most of us accepted that God would send us those who had vocations. We have made and distributed a video, produced several brochures, created a website and established a program called "Sisters on the Circuit," whereby Sisters go to speak about the community and the Religious Life in parishes who are not able to afford even transportation.

Formerly we had considered forty the upper age limit for entering the postulancy. Now we are receiving women up to fifty years of age, and find they have a great deal to give. In the past 18 months, we have admitted five new Sisters.

With the rise of feminist consciousness in recent years there has been more and more concern in regard to sexist images in our corporate prayer. Several Sisters have revised the hymns and canticles in the Divine Office, and recently one of the Sisters has done a great deal of work on the psalms, and when we were last gathered as an Order this Spring we were able to sing Matins and Vespers in inclusive language.

I believe the changes over the past 57 years have been in general positive; have led to more mature and responsible sisters; and have been a journey towards health in our Order, mental, physical, and spiritual.


Updated: October 23, 2009