Sister Mary Helen Neff
“This is to my father“s glory, that you bear much fruit … .” (John 15:8)
“Just as the seed grows in secret – we know not how – so the life of God comes to fullness within us. No method, no structure can transmit to us the creative power of God within us. It is all God’s work. That power, working in Sister Mary Helen, has done infinitely more than she could ask or imagine,” said Sister Alexa Suelzer in her commentary for Sister Mary Helen Neff, who died March 29.
“Sister Mary Helen began her growth in God’s kingdom when she was born in Indianapolis on Feb. 3, 1921, of Otto and Caroline Joerger Neff,” continued Sister Alexa. One of seven children, she attended St. Philip Neri Grade School and St. Mary Academy, both in Indianapolis. She entered the Congregation Feb. 2, 1943, and received the name Sister Marie Anthony. She professed first and perpetual vows Aug. 15, 1945, and 1950, respectively. Sister Mary Helen earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and a master’s degree in education from Indiana State University.
Sister Mary Helen began teaching upper grade school classes at St. Mary Carmelite, Joliet, Ill., in 1945. In Chicago, she ministered at St. Mel, St. Andrew, St. Francis Borgia, Our Lady of Sorrows and St. Mark. In Indiana, her classrooms included St. Jude, Fort Wayne; St. Patrick, Terre Haute; St. Bridget, St. Joseph, St. Simon and St. Francis de Sales, Indianapolis; St. Michael, Greenfield; Our Lady of the Greenwood, Greenwood; and St. Joseph, Jasper. Sister Mary Helen also spent three years at St. Ann, Washington, D.C. From 1975 to 1979, she returned to the Woods to minister in the Business Office and as a driver and a Providence aide.
In 1985, Sister Mary Helen spent a sabbatical year with the CREDO program at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. Upon completion of this, she ministered for the next three years as the dean of attendance at St. Genevieve High School, Panorama City, Calif. Sister Mary Helen returned to the Woods in 1989 and served as an administrative assistant in the Development Office. In 1994, she retired and volunteered as a driver and companion for sisters at the Woods.
“By reason of her family background and her novitiate training, Sister Mary Helen took seriously the scriptural admonition to bear much fruit, and she was determined in her pursuit of perfection. I suspect that most novices try to be exact in their observance of the Rule, but with Sister Mary Helen – always a perfectionist – her zeal led at times to a certain tension and scrupulosity – unable to relax as she troubled herself about what was the more perfect path. It should be noted that such self-concern did not lessen her generosity in serving others. She needed to learn – as indeed we all do – that perfection – fully developed humanity – is not achieved by our own power. Sister Mary Helen gradually [came] to the realization that perfection was not a matter of her own striving,” shared Sister Alexa.
The Mass of Christian Burial for Sister Mary Helen was celebrated April 1, with the Rev. Daniel Hopcus presiding. She is survived by two sisters, Bertha Neff, Indianapolis, and Sister Carolyn Louise Neff, OLVM, Huntington, Ind., and one brother, Anthony.
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“Sister Marie Anthony” was my seventh-grade homeroom teaching nun at St. Francis Borgia Catholic Elementary School in Chicago, in 1961-62.
An excellent instructor, she would, for example, write words on the blackboard — some spelled correctly, some not — and remind her students, “A misspelled word should hurt your eyes!”
She also took a personal interest in me, and engendered a thirst for reading first-person non-fiction literature.
She began by having me read, and write a report on, Bob Cousy’s autobiography, “Basketball is My Life.” That proved to be the impetus in my becoming a voracious reader, helped form me — so early on — as a non-fiction writer …. and also resulted in my becoming a lifelong fan of the Boston Celtics.
She truly influenced my life in many ways.
I am now 70 years old. I still remember Sister Marie Anthony, and remain grateful to her: She was kind, caring, graceful, and “genuine.”
God Bless her.