Sister Helen Vinton
Years in the Congregation: 53 years
My best friend says that: “Without a lot of fanfare, I would be a great organizer committed to justice, Earth and community.”
How many times might you have heard, “I guess it was Providence, but I didn’t know it at the time?”
Sister Helen Vinton might be a textbook example. She grew up on a western Nebraska ranch where everyone had to do everything. The “cando” spirit prevailed in her family, as it does in most rural areas where people often create ways to make do or provide for themselves. Sister Helen speaks of the many connections that she describes as “truly a seamless garment of Providence that just keeps astounding me.” She goes on to say, “One has to be true to oneself and claim your roots and grow from that. That’s not to say your roots are ideal by everyone’s standards. I grew up on a ranch where our family would seem poor, and maybe even deprived, by some standards. But being poor didn’t ever occur to me. As children we had a wonderful environment, hard-working loving parents and great freedom in ways that made us rich.”
Being a “ranch girl,” she knows how to drive trucks and tractors, ride horses and fly a plane. Good thing. When disaster struck in Louisiana in late summer of 2005, every ounce of Sister Helen’s energy and ingenuity was summoned when the skies grew calm and she and her colleagues returned after a hasty evacuation. Hurricane Katrina followed by Hurricane Rita created a devastating path of destruction. “I don’t think people really understand that this was, and is, a national disaster.”
The days after the hurricanes hit are most memorable. Sister Helen immediately took a helicopter tour over the storm-stricken areas landing in many little villages. “We saw homes covered with water. Every once in a while you’d see something to indicate a house was there. We saw livestock that were dead, even in trees. The destruction is massive and will take years to rebuild,” Sister Helen said. “The hurricanes were indiscriminant – wealthy, middle-income, poor – all homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, personal belongings were equally destroyed. Some will recover, some never will recover what they lost. Cameron Parish was hit directly by Hurricane Rita. It looks like a big beach except for the telephone poles that have been replaced.
“And rural people, while they are incredibly self-sufficient and determined and often tell us about ‘other poor people worse off like New Orleans,’ they can’t handle recovery by themselves. It’s getting more and more difficult for those who’ve not even had a first responder after fifteen months,” Sister Helen added. “Not long ago we found a man in a wheelchair living alone, except for his dogs, in a tin shed. He had no plumbing except for a garden hose and lived on a disability check. The county health department is now involved and SMHA is working with the Mennonites to build a home.
“There is story after story like that and some even more unbelievable unless you are here seeing for yourself” says Sister Helen.
Perhaps it was the gentle hand of Providence that filled Sister Helen at an early age with resourcefulness and self-motivation to work effectively and efficiently as a self-starter. “Actually, I think I have been prepared during my entire life for this part of my ministry here,” she stated.
Sister Helen serves as assistant executive director and life quality director for the Southern Mutual Help Association whose mission since 1969 is building rural communities through selfhelp and asset building where livelihoods are interdependent with land and water. “Since the hurricanes of 2005 there is another level of building rural communities and knowing how people are interdependent with land and waters,” Sister Helen said.
Sister Helen claims that there has been no extraordinary turning point in her life. “I had kind of an urging. Somehow, I wanted to do something with my life that had some kind of depth to it, something that made a difference. I saw that in the Sisters of Providence,” she said.
She found the Sisters of Providence through Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She learned about scholarships the college had to offer, filed an application, and received the award.
“I went to my parents and said I wanted to go to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Having the scholarship was an incentive for them to say yes,” she said. “So I packed up after high school and thought I was going ‘way East’ for college life,” she remembered. As Providence would have it, she soon made friends with some of the sisters.
“Their life looked like it had some depth to it. These women know what they are doing. They are leaders who seem to be in charge of making things happen. That little urging caused me to quietly enter the Congregation,” she said.
“At first, I found it really hard. I always had a need for my space and freedom. I was accustomed to thinking on my own and figuring things out. In the early days, before the Second Vatican Council, there were a lot of restrictions. I had to figure out how to balance the restrictions in this new life. Those early days weren’t a bowl of cherries, but it was an experience that has served me well,” she said.
First, Sister Helen was devoted to the teaching ministry. Then she served with the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, where she was called to prepare articles for publication and policy statements on environmental issues for bishops.
“I absolutely believe I have had great support from the Congregation in whatever I was called to do,” Sister Helen said. “There is a myth that because I am so far away (in Southern Louisiana), I should feel like I am on the fringes. I have never felt on the fringes of the Congregation, nor have I been lonely. It is the bond of Providence. I have no doubt that I belong in a very real way,” she said.
“Every community has its charism, a special gift, in the world today. With the proliferation of war and violence, with the proliferation and misuses of technology, there are people who are looking at how we counter this. Do we just enter the wars? Do we join in the violence? There has to be another way,” she said.
“And that’s where the Sisters of Providence offer that ‘other way,’ that opportunity,” she emphasized. “I can’t help but think there are hundreds of thoughtful women out there who have a leaning, and in many cases, a craving for something that fulfills in themselves and in others Providence’s loving designs. That is not to say it can’t be accomplished in marriage or single life, but I think that craving can be fed and nurtured and prioritized in this religious Congregation for women, as it has been for me,” she said.
“When I begin looking back, there is a lot of the contemplative in me while I thrive on activity that tries to make positive change in people and Earth. When I look at our foundress, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, she is a model of contemplative and activist. I know women can find both in our Congregation.”
Favoritesactivities: horseback riding, swimming, bird watching, canoeing
time of day: early morning
saint: Mother Theodore Guerin
food: steak and baked potatoes
holiday: Easter, without a doubt
dessert: Hot apple pie with a scoop of homemade ice cream
flower: daisies, sunflowers
songs: Grand Canyon Suite, Messiah, Born Free
quote: “We are not called upon to do all the good possible, but only that which we can do.” — Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
season: early spring