Sisters of Charity Federation Archives

Sister Mary Helen McKenna, SC Interviewed by Sister Victoria Marie Forde, SC November 12, 2018




[Bracketed words, not names, are additions by the Sister upon review.]
SVMF: Today is November 12, 2018, and I am here in Sister Mary Helen
McKenna's room to begin her oral history, and I, Sister Victoria Marie Forde,
would like her to start answering the questions [on our sheet], and the first
question is: We have a lot of material, Sister Mary Helen, in the Archives, but is
there material you would like us to add to your folder about your life? So if you
have something. . .
SMHM: Sure, I'd love to have some more because my life is long, and there are a
lot of little quips and quirks and fun and jokes that I have that I probably could tell
about, things that happened in the Community when I was there.
SVMF: All right, do you want to begin?
SMHM: Well, I think maybe I should begin with my wonderful parents. Both of
which came from Ireland and met over here, and then they had a nice little
bouncy baby girl in 1920. And I was that little girl. And life at that time was very,
very deep in Depression. And so we had the beginning of it anyway. So there were
things that we had to do in food and clothing, all kinds of things to help us get
through that Depression, and I think with a little baby girl, pretty active, that was
a problem for them. And their background enabled them, however, to live
through anything. They were strong, strong Irish. And I'm finished with the
SVMF: It sounds as if you had a hard time during the Depression , but your family,
your parents, were so good about it that they got you through. So where did you
go to school, Mary Helen, and meet the Sisters of Charity?
SMHM: Well, I went St. Mary's School, Jackson, Michigan, and I had the most
wonderful sisters: Sister Rose [McConville] in the first grade; Sister, oh gosh, she
became a great English teacher. . . .
SVMF: Is there someone who really influenced you to become a Sister of Charity?

©Sisters of Charity Archives

SMHM: Well, as I went through the grades, we went to high school, and Sister
Loyola [Ruede] was another member of my class, and we loved Sister [Helen]
Regina [Kuss]. She was a commercial teacher, and in those days it was good to
have shorthand and some of these other things, typing and all that as a
background for a job, And we really loved Sister Regina.
SVMF: And so after you graduated, though, did you enter right away?
SMHM: Well, yes we did because of her influence I entered that August after I had
graduated in June. So I think lots of people did that. But I was the last one in the
band of the August people, September. And I entered September 10, a couple of
days late because of my dad wanting to drive and take me down. But when I was
at the supper table after I had left my parents, it was close to supper, and Sister
Camilla [Smith] was at the head of the table, and they put me at the foot. And of
course they tried to make it nice for me. It was kind of hard to leave your parents
and your brother and so. . .
SVMF: So you have a brother?
SMHM: I have a brother, Jack McKenna. And so anyway, they had all kinds of
things trying to get me to talk and say something. Well, finally I got my tears
together, and I said, "Well, one thing I love to do is to play tennis." Now as I said
that, the bell had rung a few minutes, few seconds before, and so all through the
whole Community at supper they heard: "I love to play tennis."
SVMF: Because the bell was for silence and to do the dishes!
SMHM: That's right.
SVMF: So they all knew you loved to play tennis.
SMHM: And so really that was my first night then, and of course everything was
strange. We lived in the attic.
SVMF: The 5th floor
SMHM: 5th floor
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SMHM: And so there wasn't room for me with my band, so they put me with
Sister Virginia Ann [Temple] and that nice tall Sister. Gee, I kind of forget her
name, but anyway she was one of the ones from along the line of Alma, all these
farm countries [S. Mary Edmund Bensman], and so she was my angel.
SVMF: You were just in a dorm with her by yourself?
SMHM: Yes, and Virginia Ann.
SVMF: And Virginia Ann.
SMHM: I promoted up before I even got here as a band, and so we had 18 in our
SVMF: So was Loyola in your band?
SMHM: She came in February. It was of course my band.
SVMF: Sure. You were just there for the two years like most of us? Postulant and
novice, and then what happened to you? Did you go to school?
SMHM: I went to the Athenaeum. I was missioned to the Athenaeum, and it was a
wonderful experience. We went, five of us, the big bus of the Mount, and we
also went in a beautiful car sometimes. And we had the most wonderful
experience with Sister . . . .
SVMF: At the Athenaeum some Sister?
SMHM: At the Athenaeum
SVMF: Was it a Sister of Charity?
SMHM: Henrietta [Sister of Mercy] was one, and she was a great friend of the
Sister I'm having trouble with the name.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: We might be able to find it later and put it in. So you went to the
Athenaeum for two years maybe?
SMHM: Yes.
SVMF: And then what happened?
SMHM: I was missioned to St. Mary's, Hyde Park, and this was how I went to my
mission. Sister Grace Miriam [McCarthy] came from St. Mary's, Hyde Park, by bus,
picked me up with my two little satchels, and we walked back to the bus, and we
transferred someplace in Cincinnati, and then we went to St. Mary's, Hyde Park.
There were 35 sisters there.
SVMF: Because there was a grade school and a high school.
SMHM: That's right.
SVMF: And what grade were you teaching?
SMHM: I was teaching, I began with grade 4, and I had geniuses in my class.
SVMF: Oh, so you loved teaching?
SMHM: Oh my, they were jumping out of their seats, and of course being from
the Athenaeum I caught on years later. I had so many visitors, they would just
come, pop in.
SVMF: They were observers, really.
SMHM: And I was being observed all this time. Well, then two years I was in
fourth grade. And then someone moved, and I went to the sixth grade. Well,
didn't I have the same jumping jacks again! And oh, but it was always good. We
could take the liner, the music liner and run it down the chalkboard, and I'm using
modern language now. We used to call it a blackboard. But anyway, we ran it
down, and they could go up and put their poems that that they had made on the
lines of that, and then the kids could sing it.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: Oh my, that's marvelous.
SMHM: I had some tremendous people.
SVMF: You did, you did.
SMHM: One of them was the head of the liturgy here in Cincinnati.
SVMF: Oh, my.
SMHM: Giles Pater, P-A-T-E-R. And also, I had the Marist in Dayton, Brockmeyer,
and honestly they were terrific. That Brockmeyer memorized in the fourth grade.
He said, "Sister, I know some of the Inferno.
SVMF: All right, Sister Mary Helen, we're going to straighten this up a little bit.
The child who memorized the poem was Brockmeyer, and he memorized Dante's
Inferno, part of it.
SMHM: And he was so good that I sent him over to the high school to Sister
Daniel Miriam's class, and she, oh my gosh, the kids couldn't get over it, and he
was a skinny little guy and just darling, and I thought, but later he became the
head of the Marists in Dayton.
SVMF: From Saint Mary's, Hyde Park, you went to Saint Leo's.
SMHM: Yes, Detroit.
SVMF: And from Saint Leo's, Detroit, then you went to Royal Oak, the high
SMHM: That's right.
SVMF: Do you want to tell us anything about that?
SMHM: I want to tell you one funny thing. There was one Sister and you can find
the name probably, and she was a French teacher. And oh, she talked just like
this, you know, and the French thing. And they sent me up, when I went there,
©Sisters of Charity Archives

they sent me up with her to be alone in the house there, that Father Coughlin had
appointed for the Sisters' convent.
SVMF: The two of you were alone in the convent?
SMHM: The two of us, and one day she came, she was on the second floor and I
was on the first floor, and she came to me, "Oh, Sister, there's some man in my
room." I said, "Oh, my gosh, Constantia, that's her name, I'll get this window
pole." And so we went up, quietly up her stairs, and she said, "Oh, my heart, my
heart," she said, and you could hear it, and it sounded like he was snoring. And I
thought, well, . . .
SMHM: My gosh, this is something. So we got to the top, and guess what it was?
SVMF: What?
SMHM: Her fan! Her fan was going back and forth, back and forth, but oh, my
gosh, all I could think all this time was "Here I just got here, I'm in high school, and
I've got this French teacher, and here she is telling me, 'There's a man in the
room.'" And I didn't know where the phone was, I didn't know anything, and
anyway we laughed about it later.
SVMF: But from there you went to Queen of Martyrs then, and now you're
already a principal.
SMHM: Yea, a pretty young one.
SVMF: A very young one.
SMHM: Anyway, I went from Saint Mary's, I was there two years, they were
pushing it, so I would have had some acquaintance with Father Coughlin. I didn't
have an acquaintance with him, but at least he knew that I was teaching there
and all of that.
SVMF: So then they made you a principal. Did you have a background for that?

©Sisters of Charity Archives

SMHM: I had to study while I was there. We had to buy books. We had to do
everything. And Father Hebert was the pastor, and he was very particular, and I
admired him a lot. He wanted the very best. Now Birmingham at that time was a
very wealthy area. It was beyond Royal Oak, so there were a lot of wealthy people
there. And he had for each classroom a wood carving of the Blessed Mother, as
we have or used to have in our halls. It was 24 inches high, I would imagine. And
every teacher could pick out whichever title of the Blessed Mother she wanted.
And the school was beautiful. Really, everything he did he was fastidious.
SVMF: Was this a brand new school?
SMHM: Oh, brand new, nobody was ever there.
SVMF: Oh, Queen of Martyrs was brand new.
SMHM: I was the first person there, and we had several, four Sisters, Mary Bridget
[Lydon} was one. Ruth Bockenstette [Bernard Mary] was another, and the third
one was Mary Jerome Cremering. And then also to keep me in tow we had Mary
Aiden, an older Sister, quite old, had been a principal all her life, I think. Anyway, I
think she was supposed to be the guardian angel of all of us.
SVMF: Did she teach there?
SMHM: No, she was a house Sister. She was too old, really.
SVMF: So you're there for two years, is that right? No, '54 to '59 you're there.
SMHM: I was there five years.
SVMF: Five years, that's right. Then you're sent to St. Albert the Great.
SMHM: That's right, but at Albert the Great I was just there, I was a teacher there.
SVMF: But you were in junior high?
SMHM: I was in junior high teaching, yes.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: How did you feel about that, going from principal to junior high?
SMHM: Well, I think that was the way we did it in those days. You were a principal
six years less or more, and then you went back into teaching.
SVMF: I see, yes.
SMHM: I remember that marvelous, marvelous idea. No one got a big head at all.
SVMF: So you're at St. Albert's and you're teaching there for a while and just a
couple of years there, right?
SMHM: I think I was there one or two years.
SVMF: '59 to' 61, so just two years, and then they're sending you to Saint Leo's,
Detroit, and here it says," server, community, diocesan, elementary." What does
that all mean at Saint Leo's?
SMHM: I was a supervisor.
SVMF: Oh, a supervisor, that's what you were..
SMHM: I left Alberts, and they sent me to be a diocesan supervisor in Detroit. And
Father Haken, Monsignor Haken was the head of it, and I was joined by Sisters
from the IHM. And we all met frequently, I think every two weeks , and we had to
give reports of what we did and what we saw and what suggestions we had, and
so I really enjoyed that because I learned so much, and those IHMs are really
school people.
SVMF: Are they?
SMHM: They really are, the Detroit group, anyway.
SVMF: And you're living at St. Leo's, downtown.
SMHM: I live at St. Leo's.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: Among the poor.
SMHM: We didn't have cars in those days.
SMHM: So we went every place, if I had a meeting downtown with the group I
went by bus. I met every single Sister of Charity from all the diocese. Now at that
time the Detroit diocese was huge. Then they finally made a Lansing diocese. `But
that came after my day.
SVMF: So when you were there you had this huge diocese that you had to
SMHM: I had to supervise.
SVMF: This was the elementary?
SMHM: All elementary, yes.
SVMF: Oh, my heavens, what a job!
SMHM: Well, I mean elementary schools. I don't mean all elementary. But
anyway, so that was a tremendous experience, and one time they had a panel,
and they picked the teachers for it on the TV. We were on TV. I was one of them,
and we each had to say what we were doing and what we thought about
SVMF: Good heavens!
SMHM: And it was wonderful because TV. wasn't out very long. And so we all felt
kind of good about that. And all the Sisters, now at this time it was the Sisters at
the Shrine. I don't know how this happened.
SVMF: Well, you're at St. Leo's, aren't you here?

©Sisters of Charity Archives

SMHM: I went out of St. Leo's; well I guess I was there supervising some of the
SVMF: And then you went to St. Charles, Kettering, as principal.
SMHM: But I want to tell you that the Sisters at that Shrine were so humble. I
think I want to go back to that. They were so humble, so beautiful, and we had
Mother Coughlin at that time. And she lived in the garage behind the Sisters'
convent. And we had to take turns, we didn't have to, we volunteered to take
turns to sit with Mother Coughlin. Father Coughlin loved his mother so much that
he could not put her in a nursing home. So he built that garage, and some of the
Sisters were up above, and Eugene [Fox] was one of them, and oh, the name is
almost on my lips. But anyway there were four bedrooms up above this garage,
and the one who sat with Mother Coughlin, and she wouldn't go to bed until
about 12:00 at night. She loved wrestling.
SVMF: Oh, my.
SMHM: Oh my gosh, and here I was a poor little me, I'm back at Royal Oak, and
poor little me trying to correct my papers and everything, and if she saw out of
the corner of her eye that you were correcting papers, oh, she'd hit them, and
she'd want you to watch that thing with her.
SVMF: Oh, my.
SMHM: And then we'd push the piano, she had a baby grand. Every night we'd
push it over to the front door, and every night we'd put her to bed, and then
sometimes she'd wake up, and she'd say, "William Henry, she did this, that
William Henry." And that was Henry Miriam.
SVMF: Oh, my.
SMHM: But she didn't like her. So Henry Miriam got out of that job.
SVMF: Was the piano at the door so that no one would come in?

©Sisters of Charity Archives

SMHM: That's right, see, and in our room, we had a room not quite next to hers at
all, but down. And when she would get into a tantrum like that, she would come
to your door. Well, see, we had another door, and we would ring a bell, and
someone from upstairs would come down and help us.
SVMF: Oh, my, oh, what an experience, my heavens.
SMHM: It was because she was not all herself.
SVMF: Sure, so shall we go on to St. Charles, Kettering? You're a principal now.
SMHM: St. Charles, Kettering is after something or other.
SVMF: After you were the diocesan supervisor.
SMHM: Oh, that's right, I went there.
SVMF: Yes, but now you're a principal.
SMHM: And so we bought books and we did everything. These were very, very
intelligent people and very rich. And they were very nice and polite and
SVMF: You're the principal there.
SMHM: Yes.
SVMF: At St. Charles, the elementary.
SMHM: I opened St. Charles.
SVMF: Oh, you opened it, oh my heavens.
SMHM: Yes, I opened St. Charles, and I opened Birmingham. I also bought books
and things when I was a supervisor for St. Mary's in Port Huron. You had to do all
those little things.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: We'll put that all in. You'll hear it, so you'll see. After St. Charles then you
go to St. Luke's, Detroit.
SMHM: Yes, that was my respite, see. You didn't stay as a principal, you had six
SVMF: Six years, now this is two years at St. Luke's, now?
SMHM: Yes, I taught at St. Luke's, Detroit for a couple of years. And there was a
very precocious principal. She had done work downtown in reading.
SVMF: In Detroit?
SMHM: Yes, this is St. Luke's, Detroit, but I think she might have been in
SVMF: Oh, all right.
SMHM: She was a famous reading expert.
SVMF: What I'll do is I'll go to the Archives and find out who was the reading
expert in Cincinnati at that time, and I think we can fill in these times.
SMHM: And I think for a while Bobbie was with her.
SVMF: Bobbie Good.
SMHM: Bobbie Good.
SVMF: Maybe she could help us too.
SMHM: I don't think they got along. I think that's what happened. So, we'd better
leave it.
SVMF: The next is Elizabeth Seton, South Holland, High School Religion.

©Sisters of Charity Archives

SMHM: Yes, I went to the University of Detroit, and I was finishing there, and I sat
next to this wonderful Sister, just a beautiful Sister, who was at Shrine High
School. And we were in the same Theology class. I had to make up a Theology
class to get to go to South Holland.
SVMF: Yes, because it says High School Religion, that's what you did at South
SMHM: I know it. But see I needed…
SVMF: Yes, I mean that's why you needed. . . .
SMHM: I needed refreshing courses in Theology to be able to do that. And so I
went to University of Detroit during the summer. And there I met Ann Seubert. So
Ann Seubert was a charming person.
SVMF: Oh, yes.
SMHM: And she said, "Sister," she shared with me, and that was something she
didn't usually do with people. And she said, "Sister, I'm having a hard time at
Shrine. I wish I could go someplace else." And I said, "Oh, Ann, I know just the
place. You go to South Holland, I'm going there, and you can come right along. But
you'd better get that principal to. . . " You know you had to make a bid, and see if
there was room. And she taught Religion too. We shared then after school. It was
so pleasant, and there was a young man there, brilliant, he was a Ph.D. And he
taught the tenth grade. And he came in, and he liked both of us. And he said,
"One day, Sisters, you think I'm a Catholic, my whole family is. I'm one of ten
children . But I have my Ph.D., and I have it in Religion, but I no longer believe,
Sister. " And I said, "Well, then how are you teaching this tenth grade?" And he
said, "Sister, I went through all the books, and all it is is Social Studies." And he
said, "So I told Sister that I could take the job."
Well, to make a long story short, he was with us very often after school. He
cleaned our boards. He was just a perfect gentleman. But the thing was after we
left there, Ann Seubert and I, and Sister [Ruth] Dolores [Schneider], well, we got
this bug about going out and being with the people and sharing our Faith and
©Sisters of Charity Archives

doing this and that. And, my gosh, the three of us decided that we would go and
be Parish Ministers and that we'd take Adult Education, also.
SVMF: That’s when you went to Florence.
SMHM: I went to Florence. Florence is where we went.
SVMF: St. Benedict's.
SMHM: And they had trailers, and we went to the people and did all kinds of
SVMF: Today is November 13, 2018, and I, Sister Victoria Marie Forde, am back in
Sister Mary Helen McKenna's room in Mother Margaret, and Sister would like to
add a few things that were very important. Sister Mary Helen, you wanted to talk
to us about Father Coughlin's mother.
SMHM: Now Father Coughlin loved his mother dearly. He did not want to put her
in a nursing home. So Sister William Mary [O'Connor] and Sister Henry Miriam
[Miller] assured him that the Sisters would take care of her. So everybody was
asked if they would sit in the evening from 5:00 on until the next morning with
Mrs. Coughlin, who really had some problems with her mind.
SVMF: Did she live in a special place?
SMHM: Oh, yes. Father built a lovely garage for the Sisters to use down the road
on one side. And the top part had lovely rooms for the Sisters, who would not sit
with Mother, but would come to help anyone who was having a problem with
Mother downstairs. And then there was a special button that we pushed if we
needed help.
SVMF: Those are the Sisters who live on the same floor as Mrs. Coughlin?
SMHM: No, just you, the person with her and herself, that's all. And so you took
care of everything, and of course she hadn't eaten because this was after 5:00.
Well, anyway, the thing goes this way. If you needed help, and many a time you
needed help, because she might come after you! I'm joking. But anyway so we
©Sisters of Charity Archives

pressed the button, and down came Sister Philomena [Marie Funni] or Sister
Eugene [Fox], and I forget really who the third one was.
SVMF: You said that you were trying to correct papers, and she liked to watch
wrestling on TV.
SMHM: Yes, and during the evening she'd turn on the TV, and it was wrestling.
She loved wrestling. And you'd be sitting on the couch there with her and you'd
be trying to be correcting your papers and that was my first year in high school,
and I thought, "My gosh, I don't think I'm going to get all these done" because
she'd interrupt; she'd look out of the corner of her eye, and if you were doing
papers she wanted you to watch the wrestling.
SVMF: Then you also said that she wanted the baby grand piano pushed against
the door.
SMHM: Oh, she had a beautiful baby grand piano, and at night she and you would
push the piano over to the front door, so that no one would come in. So the Sister
really was locked in, and that's why in her bedroom there was this button you
could push. And of course it was needed many a time, and you just had to leave
Mother alone then. She didn't like Henry Miriam, and she was the one that got all
this going. She didn't like her because Henry Miriam was a little bossy. And she
tried to clean up her bed and fix her drawers and, oh, she didn't like that at all.
These were personal to her. Well anyway, whenever she got mad at any Sister
that was with her and got very upset, she'd call her Henry Miriam, she'd call her
Miriam Henry and we'd all knew or it would be William Mary. She'd call her name
out, whenever she didn't like what was going on. And it was not really to be
made fun of, but it was a serious thing, and the Sisters really were generous in
giving their time to take care of her.
SVMF: The other thing that you said you wanted to include and go back a little bit
to was the Athenaeum and especially Sister Generosa [Quinn].
SMHM: Oh, Sister Generosa! Sister Generosa, that name should be remembered
by every Sister of Charity from then until beyond whatever the end comes. She
was a marvelous teacher, and I'd like to say that anything that I did good in
teaching was all part of my experience with Sister Generosa.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: I've heard wonderful things about her too. I was too late to get her when I
went to the Athenaeum, but she still had a wonderful reputation. What did she
SMHM: She taught, I think it was, Psychology. I think that's what she taught. And
she was a great friend of Sister Henrietta, a Mercy who was a real to notch
teacher in Math. We all had Math from her, and we had Sister Generosa. I
mentioned what she taught. And then we had another marvelous teacher, Father
Kaeneke. Now Father Kaeneke wouldn’t be a master as a teacher. He sat at his
desk, and he poured forth all kinds of knowledge and philosophy, the Sacraments,
we had those from him. We had everything the Church from him. We had all our
Religion programs from him, and the best of all was his Psychology. His teaching
of that, he was a marvelous teacher, but every Sister or priest that went to the
Athenaeum when they came to testing time, you had to say if you left out the
letter "a" that would mean something different, and you would not get a very
good mark. He'd check that answer off.
SVMF: I told you that the fun thing that we had from Father Kaeneke years later
was that funny saying that, "She who does not toot her own horn, that horn
remaineth untooteth." And we always laughed about that.
Well, Sister Mary Helen, how about. . .?
SMHM: Can I say one thing about Armin Cooper?
SVMF: Oh, sure.
SMHM: Armin Cooper was in my band, and we were at the Athenaeum , and she
in my mind was the smartest woman in the Community. Well, Father Konecke
tested all of us with this question, he said, "What was the greatest miracle of all
time?" Now, Victoria, I don't know if you had that question.
SMHM: All right. Well, the priests would say, "Oh, the Mass"; we'd give all kinds of
answers. And no, no, no, no, but Armin, who was so humble, put her hand up just
a little bit, and of course he called on her, and she said, "The Church." Now I have
©Sisters of Charity Archives

said that, repeated her answer was to his question many, many times, and if you
really think about everything and think deeply, these other things all come with
the Church, and the Church itself is God's work on earth. Jesus is the head of the
Church. And he nearly, I think he always used that question just to get people
thinking, "Well, you're not so smart." But he nearly fell off the chair that she said
that because he had never had the right answer.
(Excerpt omitted: Sister Mary Helen discusses a parish ministry in Florence,
SMHM: We had wonderful success with the people.
SVMF: Oh, wonderful.
SMHM: They were Hispanic, and they were so beautiful. And really the
charismatic movement, they gained it from us. However, the three of us were
really at it, you know, as charismatics.
SVMF: Yes.
SMHM: But we had prayer meetings, and oh, gosh, they prayed, and I thought to
myself, in God's eyes I haven't been praying, you know? They were just so
beautiful, and we were very successful. We went to all the trailer courts, and we
weren't successful in conversions, though, but we were successful in being nice to
the people and the people welcoming us.
SVMF: Sister Ruth Bockenstette said she went down for some of your prayer
meetings. About three times, she said.
SMHM: Would she agree to what I said?
SVMF: Oh, definitely, yes. So what happens, you finally leave there? You're only
there for one year, right?
SMHM: Yes.
SVMF: And then you move on to St. Mary's.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SMHM: Well, Sister Ruth Dolores had already been at St. Mary's, and so they
welcomed me as an addition. And in that way I saw all the beauty of the West,
you know. We were able to drive the car up to Denver. We went to meetings up
there, and we saw Santa Fe and knew the history of it.
SVMF: But that's you and Sister Ruth Dolores. Sister Christopher[Ann Seubert]?
SMHM: Sister Ann Seubert was in Pueblo and worked there among the people.
She really was a good friend of the Bishop.
SVMF: She didn't stay in that house?
SMHM: She wasn't, but she became a good friend of the Bishop.
SVMF: Did she stay in that house?
SMHM: Oh, no, no, she went to Pueblo itself, not Florence. She didn't stay in
Florence, she went to Pueblo.
SVMF: Okay, and you two went to St. Mary's.
SMHM: And we went to St. Mary's [Albuquerque] because Sister Dolores had
been there, and I hadn't been any place, so I went there.
SVMF: Were you teaching English there in junior high.
SMHM: Yes, it was the ninth grade. They only went to the ninth grade.
And, oh I met, Carita, am I saying the name right? She was Hispanic but she
wouldn't say Hispanic, she wanted to be Castilian.
SVMF: Sarita, Sister Sarita?
SMHM: Sarita, that's who I'm talking about. She was a partner to me in the
school. I taught English and Religion, and I don't know what else. I didn't teach
Math, that's for sure.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: You were there for one year, and then you moved to Christ the King in
Pueblo as a Pastoral Coordinator.
SMHM: Sister Martha [Farlow] was at Christ the King in Pueblo. And they were
quite wealthy people. They were just below the university. And they were very
upset with the Bishop at that time because-- I forget his name. I don't forget it but
I can't remember it right this minute. And, anyway, he had just closed all the
schools in Pueblo, every school. Now he was a convert to the Faith, and that could
have been somewhat of his thinking, you know. Anyway, he closed every school in
So Sister Martha was working as we were working, but she was up at the
University [of New Mexico] area. And she came down to Pueblo and asked if we
would, you know, come and help her out because she needed help. There were so
many kids, and it had been for a while that he had closed all those schools, and
they didn't know their Religion. And Martha was a very marvelous teacher, really,
and so we went up there, and Ann Seubert was up there, so she asked if she could
again live with us. And so she lived with us in the house that was given us, and we
taught at the place.
SVMF: It says here that you were Pastoral Coordinator, Religious Education
teacher and . . .
SMHM: That's right. And my big thing was curriculum, so I did that, and of course
you had to type up the lessons. You had to do all that. And they were both very
high up in Theology. So we had these University people that were very wealthy.
They were furious with the Bishop. They had just built a school, can you imagine
it? And they were furious, but they brought them down for CCD, and Sister Ruth
Dolores took all the high school kids, and I took all, not all, I took a certain portion
of the grade school and so did. . . .
SVMF: Ann?
SMHM: No, no not Ann Seubert. Ann Seubert worked for the Bishop in the city,
the Bishops's work, but she lived with us, see.

©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: You were there for two years, and then it says you went to Sacred Heart
School in Colorado Springs.
SMHM: Yes, we were there for two years. We had the pastor who is in all kinds of
education. Especially when you're teaching just Religion, you know, you're part of
the same new wrinkle. The pastor, we had a hard time, so we left and went to
Pauline Memorial [Colorado Springs]. They were so happy to have us. We went to
Sacred Heart first. And then we went to Pauline Memorial, and from Pauline
Memorial I returned back to my home.
SVMF: Right here at the College.
SMHM: Here at Mount Saint Joseph.
SVMF: And so you taught at the college, Early Childhood Education for one year?
SMHM: I did that in the summer time. I didn't teach at the College; I don't
remember, maybe I did. Is it down there?
SVMF: It says that you went from August 20, 1978, to June of 1979. So that looks
like one year at the college, Early Childhood.
SMHM: Oh, I know; it was the Campus School.
SVMF: Oh, the Campus School, oh, that's wonderful.
SMHM: Sister Marilyn Joseph [Czarnecki] was the principal, and it was an
experimental school. Oh, man, was it updated, and it was wonderful. And I got to
make the room that I was teaching in, I got to put the sun in it, painting , the
whole wall was painted with sunshine, did you see it?
SVMF: Yes, I did. And the halls were always full of light.
SMHM: And Sister had a big, big bear at the door. Well, Sister was very, very
wonderful as principal of these experimental things that went on there. Sister
Marilyn Joseph was an excellent, excellent teacher, but she was also an excellent
©Sisters of Charity Archives

principal, and they had marvelous teachers that loved to experiment. Now that's
what that meant. That was the College's experimental school.
SVMF: And then it says you went to St. William's from there for quite a while.
SMHM: Oh, I wanted my last years in education with at least the neglected or the
poor or maybe becoming or the school rundown. Now St. Williams was not run
down. Oh, my gosh, it hit me in the head. The thing is Lower Price Hill was
beginning to infiltrate, so it really was a city school. It was close to the city, and I
taught there, I think five years.
SVMF: 1979 to 1984, you're right. And then you went to St. Boniface.
SMHM: That's when I really wanted to be in the inner city schools. And, oh there
was a wonderful, wonderful principal there, Joanne Geis. Oh my gosh, she was
good. And she was wonderful. She checked on the teachers. The teachers were
excellent not because they were excellent maybe when they got there, but they
were surely excellent after they had been there. And she checked everything, and
what I liked about that for the inner city school and really for all education at the
elementary level it should be no different than at the high school level. We should
have beautiful plays. We should have beautiful,. . . Everything should be based on
Thomas Aquinas's "Search for the truth, love the beauty, love beauty, all beauty,
and the last one, goodness." Always appreciate goodness no matter where it's at,
the furniture or whatever or the person, especially the person. Now those three
things at every school that I was in I used that on the stationary at the very
bottom of the stationary sheet.
SVMF: How good.
SMHM: "We excel in directing ourselves toward truth, beauty and goodness."
SVMF: Oh, my. You can't get better than that.
SMHM: And that is not for college, that is for first grade. And every class should
have all the things that pertain to those three levels. And each person, each
teacher should try to have those within their own lives because as Thomas said,
those make you truly human. Try to develop those things. But see it brings it to
©Sisters of Charity Archives

schools that you have plays. You have little plays in the classroom. You have kids
stand up and try to make a play all on its own. You see and get partners to help
and put on a little show. You know, we used to do that in our neighborhood.
SVMF: We did too in the garage.
SMHM: That's right. Now in our neighborhood one of the men was a carpenter.
Now I lived in the Depression era. But this man was a carpenter and had pretty
good people coming to him. But he built a doll house but it was big enough that
we could stand up in it, and three or four people could be in it. And so what we
did, the girl's name was Harriet, and she was my friend. She lived across the street
and they were wonderful nonCatholics. They were Episcopalian. Not that, they
were Presbyterians. But, anyway, we would put on plays and invite the
neighborhood, and they had to bring pennies to come to our play.
And I'll never forget we got people from outside too. We got my friend from
school, Regina Miller and a Helen Daly. These were from school. See, we went out
beyond our own little neighborhood, and she had people, and we would make the
play up. That's the big thing. And we would tell them their parts, or we would sit
down some day and write down the parts for them. But the funny part was, this
was about a king, and Helen Daly was kind of a big person, so she [was king], and
Regina Miller was sort of slender and thin, and Regina Miller took the part of King,
not Helen Daly. And of course we had an audience out there. But Helen Daly got
so mad she pulled the rug out from under poor Regina, and she hit her head
against the wall. Then we tried to make that part of the play.
SVMF: Oh dear! Yes, that’s how we did.
SMHM: You did plays too.
SVMF: Oh, absolutely. Rright in our garage, and we have pictures of us all dressed
SMHM: That's for creativity right there in your back yard.

©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: Now, that's so true. Now from St. Boniface it says here that you went to
the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in the teaching program,
"Church Life." That needs explanation.
SMHM: I taught. When they accept you there at the hospital, the Children's
Hospital, you see that was my final place, my final hurrah. I went there because I
really, this is kind of. . . .
I was going into my fiftieth or something. I was going into the fiftieth, and I didn't
want a big fuss at St. Boniface, so I stopped, and I went to Children's Hospital. And
that was the reason. But I was long enough there, and I contributed, and we put
on a big, big play.
SVMF: What does Church Life mean? It says you were there, Children's Hospital
Teaching Program Church Life at the Hospital. It says here you were at Cincinnati
Children's Hospital, and your job title was in the Teaching Program, Church Life.
Church Life, I just wondered what that was.
SMHM: That's a lay place, I mean that's not a Catholic place. I didn't teach any
Church. . . .
SVMF: They have mistakes here, so that must be a mistake. They have more than
SMHM: Please correct that.
SVMF: I will.
SMHM: What I did there. . . . When you go to Children's at least at that time…
SVMF: 87-95, that's a long time.
SMHM: Eight years I think. Anyway, you teach anything. You are supposed to be
able to teach anything from Grade 1 through Grade 12. See, the kids bring their
own books. Now I didn't teach first grade, but I did teach kids that had this, I don't
know what they called the temporary thing there. . . . They were trying to get
them trained down.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

I did teach a second grader there. But then I did teach some sick little children. I
really don't know what grade they were in. But they were at least sixth or fourth
grade, you know. But then I also taught them. . . . After I was there awhile, I was
sent to the Oncology unit and that was the saddest thing, heartbreaking. It was
really something. It made me so aware. They would come with their books. I
would have to go to their room. They were not well enough to come anyplace, so
I'd go to their room, and here they had. . . . They were ready for me. They had all
their books stacked up. And we went book by book by book, and I thought to
myself, "Here's these kids who don't have much more life in them, but they want
to study. And the kids in school you have to fight with them to do work for you."
SVMF: I know. It's so hard.
SMHM: And that I think goes through all grade levels. But anyway, these children,
oh, they wanted to learn, and you could do nice things with them to make them
SVMF: What a wonderful ministry.
SMHM: It is. Then I had a boy, and his last name was Hoover. He was from
Kentucky, and he was a senior. And he was the popular boy in the school because
he was the chief football player. He was also tall, so he was the basketball chief
one. And he was president of his class, senior class. Well, in February he kind of
felt sick, and they sent him to Children's. His own doctor diagnosed him. It was
cancer. So they sent him to Children's, and this tall, handsome young man I
taught, and I can't tell you the blood-- He was memorizing his chemistry formulas- I can't tell you the blood was running down his eyes because of the Coumadin,
see, and, my gosh, I just loved him whatever his first name was, Hoover.
Weekends I didn't teach I went home.
SVMF: Where was home?
SMHM: Mount Saint Joseph, the Motherhouse. And so anyway one day I came
back, and he had died. And someone said, one of the nurses said to me, "Sister,
we had to do it this way." His mother would put this big boy on her lap and just
hug him and rock him, you know, that kind of thing.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

And here he was, and they called the mother apart one day, and they said to her,
"Just tell him it's all right to go." And so she went back and told him, I'll say Bob.
"Bob, it's all right to go." And do you know, he looked at her, and he died. He died
in her arms. Isn't that sad? I went to the funeral. I mean the wake, I went to the
wake. And he wanted for Christmas a cowboy hat and big boots, and that's what
they had for him. They put the hat on his chest and the boots were on him.
SVMF: You had some very touching experiences there.
SMHM: Oh, my and then we had at the university, they were decorating or doing
something to where they put the people who are mentally distracted, and, my
gosh, didn't they give me charge of these boys. They were like ten feet tall as far
as I was concerned. And I had to teach them.
SVMF: Is this at Children's also?
SMHM: Yes it is. And see, so I had to teach them, but they wouldn't be taught. So I
forgot everything, and I said, "Let's play pool." So they played pool, and, boy, they
taught me. Oh, they were happy to teach me. I kept trying to hit those balls. You
hit one ball and three balls go in. I didn't do that, they did. And then they had,
there was another big game there that they played that they could jump on the
ceiling, and they could jump on the walls, and they could shoot people. Oh my, it
was terrible. What was in that thing? But two or three of them would get
together, and they would get these things in their hands, and they would push all
these men in the TV all around.
SVMF: Like those games.
SMHM: Yes, those games that you really shouldn't watch.
SVMF: Well, you were there from '87 to '95, but that wasn't your last hurrah. It
says here that then you were at Presentation Ministries. As a coworker for
Presentation. Those are those little books that came out?
SMHM: Oh, yes that was Father, oh, he was a saint. Father, you'll get the name,
won't you?
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: I will. [Father Albert E. Lauer] I know they did it in Spanish. I always got the
Spanish books, English and Spanish.
SMHM: He wrote all kinds of books. And he was a saint, he really was. It was at
the same time that another saint priest died, and his name was something, you
can look that up, like Whimple.
SVMF: Willig, how about Willig?
SMHM: That's it, Willig. And he had a prominent family, so he got a lot of
attention. Poor Father Lauer. I think I got the name right. He was at Old St. Mary's
and working like a dog, you know.
SVMF: What did you do there at Presentation?
SMHM: At Presentation Ministries every day we would go, and people would mail
in that they wanted, certain book, and then we would mail the books out. That's
what I did there. And then upstairs I helped with the ones that were in charge. I
helped them do things.
SVMF: This is at St. Mary's downtown?
SMHM: No, Father Lauer was at Old St. Mary's downtown. But his Presentation
Ministries was I think on Kensington Avenue in Cincinnati. And how they got this
Presentation Ministries was Father Lauer, I hope I'm saying it right, Father Lauer
was a brilliant man, and he made all these books and things, when he was the
pastor at Presentation Church, but the Bishop closed it because it was a small
parish. And then the group there wanted to still be together, and so they founded
what they called Presentation Ministries. And that's popular, I guess all over the
SVMF: It says that you were there for five years.
SMHM: Yes, I was, but, see, I was doing more clerical things.
SVMF: But you were still working.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SMHM: I was passing good education. See, the books were very bold. Somebody
really ought to try to add more. They were more leaflets, you know.
SVMF: Yes, I used to have them because they had them in English and Spanish,
and I always wanted to read everything I could in Spanish to keep Spanish up. And
they were good.
SMHM: He was on the radio too, you know.
SVMF: Well, then finally, finally you retired, and you came back to the
SMHM: Yes, and I, well, I came back to the Motherhouse, and what I really did
was get some materials that would be ethnic and had music and stories with it,
the language, but I couldn't speak the language, of course. But the thing is I went
to different rooms, and I remember Gertrudis [Pfeiffer] especially. She was from
Germany, came over when she was five years old and she was very tall, and she
was a wonderful, wonderful nurse. And, however, she wasn't thinking fully
straight, and she was ill too.
SVMF: She was in Mother Margaret?
SMHM: She was in Nursing. And that's where I went, the Nursing in Mother
Margaret. And I went to her room, and she was an opera soprano. Yes, she was.
And you never heard her sing?
SMHM: Oh, my gosh. Well, anyway, she would sing, so I found these German
books, you know, and the leaflets and things, anything German, and I'd go to her
room. I'd say, "Did you ever hear of this?" And she'd look at the book, and say,
"Oh, yes." And I said, "Can you sing a German song?" I would have something
there. And it was easy to get the German stuff. Anyway, she'd look at the song,
and then she'd look , and she'd sing this German song. Oh, I heard her all over the
floor. And the people, the help, would come out to hear her, you know, and of
©Sisters of Charity Archives

course she couldn't see them because she was facing the window. And they all
loved that. And I thought this is wonderful.
So the next day I thought I'm going to go back. Well, I went back, and she'd say
about the song, "Oh I haven't sung that in years." And then she'd sing it, and then
the people would come. Well, that was enough because we'd had enough.
And the next thing now, I didn't have any friends, and I didn't have any friend,
Sisters either but German and Irish. And I don't know what else there is.
SVMF: So that was your ministry then.
SMHM: It was a ministry for me to have music, and if they were artists or
something, they could do some art, any of the nice things that would be of
SVMF: And now you're here, and I would just like to ask you about your life , and
what you think about religious life now and in the future maybe.
SMHM: Well, I'm very conservative, and I feel that the Sisters are doing wonderful
work. However, I don't recognize some of it. But I know they're doing good work
because people are improving their lives because of them. And there is one that is
dead. The funeral will be tomorrow or is it today?
SVMF: It's today, Mary Lou Knapke.
SMHM: Her name is Mary Lou Knapke, and her life has had a lot of different turns,
and at the end people say now, "See, I don't know her or what she has been doing
up to the present, it was a sudden death, beautiful work.
Another Sister, who was before her in death, was Sister Elizabeth Cashman, who
was in the College and did all kinds of different work there.
SVMF: And she also worked with Hospice.
SMHM: Oh, did she?
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: Yes.
SMHM: She worked at Hospice, my goodness.
SVMF: I find out so much when they give the reflection at their funeral. You find
out, oh my goodness, you know. Today Father Boltman, the Jesuit, who's in
charge of the Retreat House, and he has Bellarmine Chapel. He wrote a beautiful
response to Mary Lou's death. Here's what he said:
"She was such a good gift to so many of us Jesuits. I always felt on the same page
with Mary Lou. She was turning the page and calling me on. This is not the kind of
person that you think will suddenly just not be there. And I'm sorry not to be with
everybody today at the funeral. She always made clear, 'We do what we can.'
Thanks to God for her.' Richard Boltman, Jesuit, SJ."
Wasn't that a beautiful tribute. She got one tribute-- it will be a big crowd today
for her funeral--but listen. . . .
SMHM: May I just say one more thing? There are many other Sisters of humbler
background that are really the saints of the Community. Sister Ann Loretto
[Connell] is one. And there are many, many more whose names are just names,
but they are beautiful Sisters of Charity.
SVMF: Do you want to say anything about the Church, Mary Helen? What's your
future plan? What do you think about the future of the Church?
SMHM: Oh well, Pope Francis is a pope for these times. There are some things
that for us, me, might be questionable about people going to Holy Communion
and not being fully Catholic. And there are other questions too, but I'm not
capable of talking about them now. But I feel that people love simplicity, and that
Pope Francis is, and he took the name Francis, and I think in Spirit he is very close
to him.
SVMF: And he's a Jesuit.
SMHM: And he's a Jesuit.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: I know you could hardly have a better combination; that's an interesting
SMHM: That's it. And I really think. . . . I listen to his homilies. I listen to his Mass
on Sunday, and, oh gosh, you can tell he's a Jesuit. He must have majored in
literature or something.
SVMF: Well, Sister Mary Helen, I don't want to stop your oral history without you
having said everything you want to. But you can always add thing; we can always
add if you think of something else.
SMHM: Well, there's one thing. Remember at Shrine I was telling about Grace
Miriam made me do everything practically, and she gave me. . . to open up, I
want to say, "You can fix this up."
SVMF: In the school?
SMHM: You know where the kids make decisions.
SVMF: Counseling?
SMHM: No, not counseling. Well, anyhow, I'll let you know later. Anyway, she put
me in charge of this, so I had to organize this group, and they were very much
wanting to do this. And of course they were children that were in wealthy areas in
Royal Oak, Michigan. And they were kind of spoiled and on the risqué side. But
anyway we put on this talent show, and, oh, they all wanted this, and they were
all wanting to be in it, and they were the preferred. Well, these boys, there were
four of them, were harmonizing, and they were singing, "We're poor little lambs,"
that song, and all of a sudden the back doors of the auditorium opened, and there
was Father Coughlin with Sister Grace Miriam.
Now in this area, the Royal Oak area and the other area, I can't remember what
it's called, but they were all one. It was Birmingham and something else. Well,
anyway, Father Coughlin was stuttering, he was mad, and he came up to the front
of the auditorium, and he blasted the whole group, all the kids that were there for
the talent show, and the people that were on the stage. And he turned and let
them know that they weren't hiding behind his back.
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: Is this at the actual performance, the actual performance with the
SMHM: The actual performance, the whole school was there. All right, so anyway,
the problem was that in this area were wealthy people, wealthy kids. They were
writing bad words on doors, and they were doing other things, and some of ours
were in on it. And that's when he said, if ever he finds these people, "After my
talk, I'm going to do something to you."
Then out he marched, and out goes Grace Miriam with him. So the door closed in
the back, and I didn't know whether to pull the curtain, or what to do, or go on
with the program. So I opened-- we had closed it, and now I opened it, and here
were the same kids, same boys. See, they were all seniors, and here they were,
and I thought, "Oh, now surely now they'll start another song." No, no. "We're
poor little lambs that have gone astray." They finished this song that they started.
And they were poor little lambs, I'm telling you.
SVMF: Oh dear, I'm glad that you got that in.
SMHM: Is that all right?
SVMF: Yes, that's wonderful.
SMHM: You can take it out.
SVMF: No, no, I'd never take that out or take anything out. I want to thank you
just from the bottom of my heart for such a refreshing and such an enriching oral
SMHM: I just hope it was all right.
SVMF: I wanted to get an educator in our oral history as part of our history of the
Sisters of Charity, and who better could do that than you.
SMHM: Did I do enough of it?
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: Oh my, you certainly did and such a variety of missions and ministries.
SMHM: Another thing I'm going to say about education, a good teacher reads all
the writings that are updated for education.
SVMF: Yes.
SMHM: A good teacher has those among her library books. And a good teacher, I
think, is a totally alive, and I really mean we're alive with Christ within us. But the
point is what you mean outside of that. They're not sitting at their desk; they're
down with the kids, they're looking over the papers that the kids are writing.
They're helping them. They're doing lots of things. You're not just sitting at the
desk or sitting up there eating an apple on top of the desk while the kids are
writing. Really, I know that they have to write, and they have to take tests, but by
the same token the rest of the time that they're not doing that there should be
active and lively activity in the room. Even if all you want to do is what we did
when we were kids, have some of them come up in the front of the room and
make a little play right on the spot.
SVMF: Just keep active, intellectually too of course.
SMHM: Don't put that in if you don't think I didn't speak very well.
SVMF: I think you spoke very well.
SMHM: I'm more talking to you.
SVMF: No, I think that's part of your oral history. That's very important advice for
all of us who are teachers or who will be teachers, most definitely.
SMHM: The Sisters really did do that.
SVMF: I just want to thank you and I'll turn off the recorder with a deep heartfelt
thanks for all you have shared.
SMHM: Any of this bad stuff I am telling you. . . .
©Sisters of Charity Archives

SVMF: I don't think there is any bad stuff; it's excellent. Thank you again. What a
wonderful oral history, what a treasure we have. Thank you so much.

©Sisters of Charity Archives

Dublin Core


Sister Mary Helen McKenna, SC Interviewed by Sister Victoria Marie Forde, SC November 12, 2018


Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati; Monasticism and religious orders for women -- Catholic Church -- History; Catholic Church --- Education -- United States -- History


An interview with Sister Mary Helen McKenna by Sister Victoria Marie Forde. This recording is a part of the oral history series housed at the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati Archives.


McKenna, Sister Mary Helen, SC; Forde, Sister Victoria Marie, SC


Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati Archives


Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati Archives Oral History Series




Laverty, Jackene (Transcriber)


Online access is provided for research purposes only. For rights, reproduction, and use requests or more information, please contact the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati Archivist






Oral History


Sister Mary Helen McKenna, SC Interviewed by Sister Victoria Marie Forde, SC November 12, 2018



Oral History Item Type Metadata


Forde, Sister Victoria Marie, SC


McKenna, Sister Mary Helen, SC


Cincinnati (Ohio)

Original Format



1 Hour 32 Minutes 8 Seconds


McKenna, Sister Mary Helen, SC; Forde, Sister Victoria Marie, SC, “Sister Mary Helen McKenna, SC Interviewed by Sister Victoria Marie Forde, SC November 12, 2018,” Sisters of Charity Federation Archives, accessed April 24, 2024,


Allowed tags: <p>, <a>, <em>, <strong>, <ul>, <ol>, <li>

Document Viewer