Helen Thomas Colbert, CSJ

We remember her in the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring.

The Broadway musical, Rent, gives us something to contemplate in the lyrics of the song, “Season of Love”’ –  525,600 minutes, how do you measure a year? In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in laughter, in strife. In 525,600 minutes – how do you measure a year in the life? How about love?

How do you measure a lifetime of love? On this day, which marks the 88th birthday of Sister Helen Thomas Colbert, we acknowledge that her lifetime was one of boundless love.  Helen loved her God, her extensive family, her ministry, her congregation, and her countless friends.

As one of the thirteen children of Helen and Thomas Colbert, Jane Colbert (Sister Helen, AJ) was raised in Somerville. She certainly had an experience of living in community long before she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph. Helen had a deep sense of pride and love for her family, as witnessed by the many group pictures that she kept to chronicle the gatherings she faithfully attended.

Last evening The Women’s Table, one of our ministries, honored Helen with the Compassionate Strength Award, attesting to her great heart and brave spirit. Some of us opined that Helen left us on Saturday because she didn’t wish to be in the limelight. That was her nature, to quietly give of her talents to the dear neighbor without seeking recognition.

Indeed, Helen had a great heart, a missionary’s heart, and following her heart led her first to Santa Rosa, New Mexico. To be of better service to her New Mexico neighbors Helen journeyed to the Dominican Republic to learn Spanish. While her intended focus was language acquisition, Helen learned much about the people and the hardships they endured. This knowledge colored her perspective of those for whom we pledge to stand,” in their struggle for justice, incarnating hope”.

In response to a request from Sister Blaithin, our Archivist at the time, Sister Helen wrote an extensive narrative about her years in New Mexico to serve as part of a history of the CSJ presence there.  As one might expect, the pages yielded wonderful stories of everyday experiences, enhanced by humorous observations. In reading her account I learned that Helen had taught children to play the piano and had served as the church organist for daily Mass.

Some touching vignettes emerged as Helen spoke of the poverty of migrant workers, whom she encountered while taking the census for the parish of St. Joseph in Anton Chico. As Helen and Sister Ivan went from house to house, they were followed by a young girl of perhaps twelve years, a child of migrants.  Instinctively, Helen recognized that the child was just seeking companionship. The young girl followed the sisters for the afternoon and Helen later wrote: “The happiness of this child is still with me in spite of her situation.”

After returning to teaching in the Boston area for a few years Helen’s heart led her to Hayneville and Montgomery in Alabama, in response to an invitation from the Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph.  There, Helen’s gift of relating to others enabled her to serve as a teacher, community coordinator, bookkeeper, activist, and any other profession which the work required.  The letters from Hayneville, shared with the community through our publication, Soundings, gave a firsthand account of her work and her life shared with Sister Genevieve Poirier, a Sister of St. Joseph from Maine. Again, the stories were heartwarming, with Helen’s constant focus on the needy and marginalized.

One experience that she recounted was of a man nicknamed “Mississippi”, so-called because he had come from there fifty years before.  Helen described him as “paralyzed on his right side, [he] limped, and could not write his name.” He requested Helen’s help to find his “kin” in Mississippi. Helen embarked on a twelve-hour drive (with a stop at KFC!) to help him find relatives and enabled him to have a reunion. Later she dismissed this extraordinary deed as simply being present to the dear neighbor.

When the Federation Mission at Hayneville closed, Helen moved on to Mississippi, again being a healing presence to the people, with whom she developed a bond of true friendship. A number of years ago students from Regis traveled to Jonestown, Mississippi, to work during their spring break. When I mentioned this to Helen and described the home where some of the students had stayed, she knew the woman who had been their hostess. 

How do you measure a lifetime of love? In countless ways of daily living out commitment. Helen now joins that group of women who are our past. She bequeaths “to us a strong heritage: the courage to respond in the most difficult situations, the humility to let God be with people through us, the fidelity to God and to one another from which we derive our strength.” Constitution p. 17

Thank you, Helen, for your loving presence among us, for your lifetime of love!

 Given by Judith Costello, CSJ

May 6, 2021