Home » Obituaries » Sister Helen Vinton (formerly Sister Helen Jean)


Sister Helen Vinton (formerly Sister Helen Jean)

It is not surprising that the readings selected for Sister Helen Vinton’s Memorial Mass centered on various aspects of justice, both direct service and systemic change. For Helen was that kind of person and lived that kind of life during her ninety-plus years. In receiving the 1999 Mother Theodore Guerin Medallion from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, it was noted that “she was a role model and a woman of purpose, devotion, community vitality and leadership,” wrote Sister Ann Casper and delivered by Sister Denise Wilkinson in the commentary for Sister Helen Vinton, formerly Sister Helen Jean, who passed away on Saturday, August 5, 2023, in Louisiana. She was 90-years-old and had been a Sister of Providence for 70 years.

Sister Denise continued: Anna Patricia Vinton was born to parents John and Helen Swiggart Vinton December 9, 1932, in Gordon, Nebraska. Helen was one of eight children in the Vinton family. She was baptized Anna Patricia, but went by Ann.

The state of Nebraska claimed her through her elementary and high school years, attending elementary school, North Valley Rural in Gordon, and then St. Mary High School in O’Neill, Nebraska, graduating in 1952.

Somehow, no one seems to know exactly how, she heard of the Sisters of Providence in Indiana and entered our college here in 1953. She was received into the novitiate a year later, in 1954, making her first profession of vows in 1956 and her perpetual profession of vows in 1961. Her religious name at that time was Sister Helen Jean.  She is probably the only sister in community who flew or was flown in the family airplane to arrive here! Is it coincidence or Providence that, right after the toll which marked her death Saturday morning August 5, some sisters observed a small private plane flying over the Woods? Perhaps Helen’s final blessing for us!

She earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Mary-of-the-Woods College. Classmate Sister Jean Fuqua recalls Ann as quiet and introverted. “We always went to Ann’s room after hours because the nuns would never suspect Ann of making any mischief!” Helen later earned her master’s degree in biology from St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota. She also had Secondary Certification in the state of Indiana to teach English, journalism, biology, speech and drama. She taught elementary grades in Illinois and Indiana for eight years before being assigned to Ladywood High School (later Ladywood-St. Agnes) where she taught English and biology for 11 years.

For five of those years, she created and directed an Environmental Studies curriculum, combining biology, the environment and health services and taught by a team of teachers. She was definitely ahead of her times with her interest in and passion for the environment.

A former student from the 70s, Anne Healey Davenport, shared this memory: “One summer Sister Helen Jean went somewhere to study something. Anyway she came back with shaved eyebrows because they were studying a microscopic mite that lives in our eyebrows. I was astounded that she would shave her eyebrows all in the name of science. This is an example of her commitment to learning and discovering the complex nuances of creatures that live among us without our awareness.”

Another student, Mary Ellen Wieland shared, “She really opened up a whole new world to us city girls. In the spring of 1971, Sister Helen Jean encouraged us to participate in the first ever Earth Day Walk for Mankind. All the students felt that Sister Helen Jean was the original Earth Mother.” 

Every year Sister Helen Jean took a group of these high school students on a wilderness trip to explore Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. Quite a field trip, to say the least! Her student at the time, Julia Boarini Conaghan, recalled, “I look back and realize it was more than a week in the woods. It was an early challenge on how to live when you do not have the skill set. It was a learning experience to develop that part of yourself that you did not know existed. That is what Sister Helen gave me and probably hundreds of other young women. It has been so helpful in life when I have faced physical and personal challenges to think about that time, to slow down and remember that difficult situations can be handled from the strengths we develop along the way.”

After leaving Ladywood-St. Agnes, Helen spent five years with the Rural Life Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, where she did research and wrote policy. This was probably somewhat of an “internship,” if you will, for her more than 40 years ministering at the Southern Mutual Help Association in New Iberia, Louisiana. Her titles changed considerably through the years but the focus was always on the sugarcane plantation farmworkers in a role of advocacy, sustainability, resource development and quality of life.

As a quiet, diminutive person, Helen perhaps impressed first time acquaintances as a “pushover.” This perception changed when Louisiana state legislators quickly learned they were no match for her intelligence, perseverance and insistence for justice for sugarcane workers. They went from “fearing her presence” to admiring her and eventually presenting her with many awards recognizing her work and extraordinary persistence.

Sister Helen with her Martin Luther King Jr. Award.

Perhaps that is why the honor she most appreciated was being named the first woman to Louisiana’s State Pesticide Commission, the only commission representing the citizens of Louisiana. Through the years, sugarcane farmer by sugarcane farmer, Helen Vinton provided a foundation of trust and justice.

Some of Helen’s other accomplishments included: managing millions of dollars for the Southern Mutual Help Association (SMHA) in program-related investments from religious congregations. Helen was a founding member of the 13-state Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG). She worked with an international group in Canada and Norway to save heritage seeds. These seeds, should there be an international disaster, would restart agriculture to feed the world.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Helen’s induction into the Public Interest Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C. Sister Helen was inducted into the group “for her commitment to environmental protection, sustainable development and social justice. She has worked with fishers, farmers and former sugarcane workers on issues such as minimum wages, inflated land prices, rapid coastal development and world trade markets.”

Sister Helen Vinton never settled for small goals or small gains.

In the psalm of today’s liturgy, we heard these words: Who may dwell in your sacred tent? One who does what is righteous…and speaks the truth from the heart.

Helen, you have taken your place in the sacred tent of all creation. You most certainly did what was righteous and spoke the truth from your loving heart.

Sister Helen Vinton, right, speaks with fisherman Douglas Wells in front of his boat. Sister Helen created a fisher loan program, helping Douglas and others repair boats damaged by hurricanes.

We count on your persistence and integrity to draw all of us deeper and deeper into the sacred tent of all creation. You followed the path marked out for you by Providence, Helen. We thank you for that and for the many gifts you shared with us and so many others that all might know the sacredness of Earth.

Funeral services for Sister Helen took place on Saturday, August 12, in New Iberia, La., with Rt. Rev. Francis Fontenot presiding.

.A memorial service for Sister Helen took place in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods at 11 a.m., on Thursday, August 24.

Memorial contributions may be made in honor of Sister Helen to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Helen in the comment section below.

Sister Helen Vinton (formerly Sister Helen Jean)

Complete Ministry

In Illinois: Teacher, St. Mary Carmelite School, Joliet (1956-58).

In Indiana: Teacher, St. Mary School, Richmond (1958-64); Teacher, Ladywood High School, Indianapolis (1964-75).

In Iowa: Publications and writing policy research, National Catholic Rural Life Conference, Des Moines (1975-80).

In Louisiana: Director of Plantation Initiative Program, Southern Mutual Help Association, Jeanerette (1980-81); Coordinator of Planned Initiative in Rural Development Advocacy and Assessment, Southern Mutual Help Association, Jeanerette (1981-82); Rural Resource Development with Sugarcane Farmworkers, Southern Mutual Help Association, Jeanerette (1982-91); Rural Resource Development of Sustainable Agriculture/Pesticide Policy, Southern Mutual Help Association, New Iberia (1991-95); Director of Rural Resource Development, Southern Mutual Help Association, New Iberia (1995-97); Assistant Executive Director/Life Quality Director, Southern Mutual Help Association, New Iberia (1998-2013); Life Quality Directeor, Southern Mutual Help Association, New Iberia (2013-14); Life Quality Director/Senior Executive Officer, Southern Mutual Help Association, New Iberia (2014-17); Life Quality Consultant/Senior Executive Officer, Southern Mutual Help Association, New Iberia (2018-2023).

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  1. Avatar Sister Connie Kramer, SP on August 6, 2023 at 10:38 am

    Through Sister Heiden Vinton when we taught together at Ladywood-St.Agnes in Indianapolis, IN, I was made aware of the need to care for the earth for which I will always be grateful.

  2. Avatar Denise Safford on August 6, 2023 at 6:53 pm

    Sister Helen Jean and Sister Connie Kramer were the adults who accompanied our group from LSA to the Boundary Waters. How they survived us girls is a miracle! One of my most special memories. I graduated in 1975.

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