Sisters of Charity Federation Archives

Brewer, Sr. Helen, D.C. Oral History

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ORAL HISTORY OF SR. HELEN BREWER
INTERVIEWED BY SISTER CECILE MATUSHEK, D.C.
RECORDED JULY 2019
My name is Sister Helen Brewer. I’m a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. I was born in
Perryville, Missouri on November 24, 1934, and I was baptized the following Sunday on December 2,
1934 at the Church of the Assumption. My parents are Stella Ann Bass Brewer and Edward Louis
Brewer, and I’m the fifth of seven children. Three of my siblings – Louis, Maura, and Dorothy – are
deceased. The other three are Victoria, Dennis, and Albert. The four of us are able to visit regularly as
they live relatively close to where I presently live in Missouri. I have 23 nieces and nephews.
The Daughters of Charity and the Vincentian priests have always been a part of my life. The church of
the Assumption was also known as St. Mary’s of the Barrens. My parish church was also the chapel of
the Vincentian seminarians studying for the priesthood.
Long before I was born, the seminarians built a grotto honoring Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
The Vincentians established near that time the Association of the Miraculous Medal. The Daughters of
Charity arrived in Perryville in 1907. Actually, the first establishment of the Vincentians was in Perryville
in the St. Louis Archdiocese in 1818. So, they were there many years, and then the Daughters came in
1907 and established the St. Vincent’s School. They taught there for 95 years before it was necessary to
leave because of assignments.
I was taught by the Daughters of Charity the 12 years of my grade and high school education. The
church, and the grotto, and the Shrine, and the Seminary, and the parish Catholic school are all a part of
my education and formation. When I think about those times of my youth, my growing up, they were
special times that my family was together and those were – like the Christmas Novena, and the Stations
of the Cross, and the triduum before Easter, and the May procession and the Corpus Christi procession.
We went as a family. And of course the Seminary picnic. You had to go to the Seminary picnic.
[laughter]
Of course. I love the Seminary picnic.
Me too
I loved to be around the Daughters of Charity, helping them around the school. Clapping the erasers
was an important thing to do, and cleaning the chalkboard, and decorating the bulletin boards. Several
of the girls in my class when we were about the third and fourth grade, we would race up the sidewalk
to the sisters’ house as they came back from lunch, because we had to be the first one to be able to grab
sister’s hand and hold her hand back to the school.
Sisters Regina [Henley] and Aurea [Ayler] and Blanche [O’Malley] and Clotilda [Landry], and Helena
[O’Shea] and Frances Mary [Rutt] and Frances [Proffitt] were all sisters that I remember closely. They
were a special part of my life. And they made a part of the decision that I made to be a Daughter of
Charity. Principally because they seemed happy, and they enjoyed what they were doing.
One of my significant memories of the possibility of becoming a Daughter took place when I was
completing my junior year in high school. I had asked one of the priests of the seminary if they would

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provide a reference for me to take into St. Mary’s Hospital in St. Louis. I was applying for a summer
position between my junior and senior year to serve as a nurses’ aide. He agreed, but as I was turning to
leave, he called out to me and said, “Don’t let them get you.” I really stopped in my tracks because it
was the first time I think that I realized that I should seriously consider what I was going to do after high
school. He was talking not about the Daughters, but more about the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, who
operated the hospital in St. Louis to which I was trying to be a nurses’ aide. It really was the first of my
thoughts with regard to becoming a Daughter of Charity.
When I remember some of my childhood memories of growing up, in addition to the church and school
activities and living with six brothers and sisters, one of the major memories of my life has to do with
the Second World War. I remember coming home from seeing an afternoon movie and finding my
parents concerned about what they were listening to on the radio, learning that what was happening
was the destruction of Pearl Harbor, and the President of United States was declaring war.
The Second World War was part of my growing up. I was seven years old when the war started. Both of
my older brothers served in the war in the Navy. One brother was in the Atlantic, and the other was in
the Pacific. My mother used to help with the American Red Cross, and my father, as a member of the
American Legion, used to assist families when their loved ones did not come home. One of my most
vivid memories at the end of the war was going to church and thanking God with all of the rest of the
parishioners and the townspeople. It was a very moving moment.
When I think about my vocation, I have to think about it in terms of my classmates in high school. It
wasn’t unusual for more than one classmate to join a religious order of priests or sisters, and in my
particular class, there were three of us who joined the Daughters of Charity this year – this is one
graduating class. One of our classmates joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and one of the boys
went into the seminary toward the priesthood.
I joined the Daughters of Charity, and I entered postulatum on June 16th, 1952, and I served my period of
postulatum, or preparation to become a Daughter, at St. Philomena’s in St. Louis, which was a daycare
center and a social service center in midtown St. Louis. After a period of I think about three or four or
five months, I went to Marillac Seminary in St. Louis, and on November 25, 1952, a day after my 18th
birthday, I became a member of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.
Following that time or that year in the seminary, I was given the habit of the Daughters of Charity on the
Feast of the Miraculous Medal in November 27, 1953. In that time in our history, the sisters did not just
first get a college degree and then you were sent on mission. Actually, you were sent on mission while
you were studying and working for your college degree whether that would be in summer school as you
came back from one year to the other or evening classes and Saturday classes at colleges where you
were.
I want to talk a little bit about my missions and my ministries. I’ve divided my many missions and
ministries into several time periods. First, what my ministry was, and then to share some of the
thoughts I had at several of those ministries.
The first 10-15 years of my being a Daughters of Charity, I spent as a teacher at the elementary school
level. I was first assigned to Mobile, Alabama; and then I was at Salt Lake City, Utah; and then back to
St. Louis. Part of coming back to St. Louis was to finish my Bachelor’s degree.

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The second 10 to 15 years I spent as a teacher at the elementary school level and secondary level at the
Labouré High School teacher and Ritter High School principal and vice principal. And there I was in San
Francisco, and then Dallas, and again back into St. Louis.
The third 10-15 years, 1976-1988 I served as the Director of Religious Education and pastoral ministry
programs and diocesan level Director of Religious Education and the director of Renew. I’ll talk about
those things later. I was located in Springfield, Missouri, and I was located in West Plains, and Willow
Springs, and White Church, and Thayer in Southern Missouri.
The next 10 years from the late 80s through 1998 were a different kind of ministry. It was a 10 year
period. It felt like a longer period than that. I was a docent in Emmitsburg, and then I served as a
Director of Religious Education in a parish in St. Charles, Missouri.
The next thing that I did in that same period of time was I was assigned to be vice president of Mission
Integration at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ft. Worth, and then, following that, I served in the mission
leadership position at our National Health System in St. Louis and then a ministry councilor for the
Daughters of Charity from 1995-98 here in St. Louis.
That takes care probably of about the first 40 years of my ministry from a teacher to a principal to a
director to a leadership position.
When you were on the Council, was that the days when we were health, ministry, and social work
[positions]?
Mm-hmm.
And so you were the health...?
No, no, no, I was education.
Education on the Council! Ok.
Actually, when I looked at it, it looked like—It just says “Ministry.” In my head... but it was in education.
I wasn’t in the healthcare. I don’t know if that’s how we were.
That’s what I was trying to remember myself. At St. Joseph’s, what was interesting was that was not one
of our hospitals to begin with I recall. It was the St... I think it they were St. Joseph’s Sisters, because you
and I would get together...
Yeah, St. Joseph’s in...
Ft. Worth.
In Ft. Worth was a hospital of the Sisters of Incarnate Word of San Antonio. We purchased it from them.
They had had it for almost 100 years, and then they were not able to continue it.
So those were challenges I guess?
It was a challenging time for sure.
I’d like to just take a couple of experiences to share some thoughts that I had. One of them was my first
mission in Mobile, Alabama. It was a period of the time in which schools and parishes and everything at

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life was to be integrated. It was a period of integration in the 1950s. Several of my experiences—One
had to do with the procession that was held annually in the Diocese of Mobile at Corpus Christi time in
which the celebration was to take the Blessed Sacrament through the city of Mobile and bring it to the
center of downtown Mobile. In that particular year, the schools were to be lined up according to the
year in which they were founded. In that particular year, a school with black boys and girls, with black
children, was placed in front of St. Vincent’s School of Mobile, the Daughters’ school. My experience
was that at one point, as the procession was starting, when the families found out that the black
children were walking in front of the white children, the parents came and removed their children from
the procession. Took them out. It was a shocking thought for—I was twenty-one years old.
It’s shocking still isn’t it.
Right, shocking still. I also remember times when I would see women who I knew were waitresses or
housekeepers walking instead of riding the bus, and also to know that, in the church, in St. Vincent’s
church, the people who were black sat in the last pews, and there was a rope that was hooked to the
wall and the pew, which was an indicator that if you were not white, that you should not go beyond that
rope in church in church in St. Vincent’s Church in Mobile, Alabama.
Was that the time of the bus boycott as well and the boycott as well of the bank industry?
Yes, it was the time of the bus boycott as well. That’s why all of those people were walking toward their
work because they didn’t... They were not going to ride those busses at that point.
When I was at San Francisco at the girls’ high school... This was the period of time in history when
Haight-Ashbury was the most dominant part of what was happening in the drug scene, and we would
have some of our high school girls disappear in the maze of the Haight-Ashbury district. Cathedral High
School was located not too far from the Haight-Ashbury district.
One of the most memorable moments for me was when one of the high school girls in class just burst
out in tears and she said “Why do they have to keep killing our leaders?” She was referring to Dr.
Martin Luther King and the Kennedy assassination as well.
You meant Bobby?
Bobby. Yeah. All of that was occurring in similar time when I was missioned in the San Francisco
Cathedral High School for Girls.
Another one of the experiences that I wanted to share was when I was in Springfield, Missouri working
with the diocesan religious education programs as well as working with the Renew program. This was a
time following the Second Vatican Council in which the expansion of the opportunity for people to
participate more actively in the life of the Church was taking place. One of the memories has to do with
the enthusiasm that occurred surrounding the opportunity when families could more actively
participate in activities of the church but also in the development of their own spirituality through the
participation of Renew. Renew was the name that was given to a small group family-centered
discussion, school centered and family-centered opportunities to learn more about sacred scripture,
learn more about their faith. And that was part of the Second Vatican Council’s expansion of activities
for the Church to be more fully among the people
And that was very new for the Church at that time wasn’t it?

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It was.
You were there.
Right. In the midst of it. Right in the middle of it. Trying to spread that message of the active
participation of people in the Church.
When I was in Austin, Texas-- Mobile; San Francisco; Springfield, Missouri; Austin, Texas—I arrived in
Austin at the time that the federal government was initiating the Children’s Health Insurance Program
[CHIP]. I got into it right at the very beginning because, when I first went to Austin I was serving as an
advocate and a person lobbying for issues surrounding the state capital, the issues in the state of Texas.
Part of that energy that I had at the time was my participation in the development and the acceptance
of the CHIP program for the state of Texas and also distinguish the eligibility programs of whether the
child was eligible for Medicaid or whether they were eligible for the CHIP program. So I did some
lobbying, and I actively engaged with some of our Senators and Representatives at the time. It was a
great experience.
Those were big days for that.
Yes they were. They were the big days.
I spent probably the last 20 years—a little less than 20 years of my ministry, I was in Austin, Texas.
During that time, the expansion of health care services in the Central Texas area, and I was really blessed
to be a part of that expansion, part of that growth in Central Texas. I served as a member of the board,
and also as chair of the board for some time. It was a big lesson for me.
Was that the time that we took over the city hospital in Austin, when we acquired that as well? Which
was mammoth.
Yes, it was. The City/County Hospital – Brackenridge Hospital – was a major, wonderful tradition, but
unable to sustain the cost of maintaining the City/County hospital. So Ascension and Seton Hospital-Ascension took over and developed a relationship with the City/County hospital. It was very very
difficult because it entailed the birth and...
All of the above.
All of the above areas abortion and birth control that would have been possible had it been a public
hospital, but now it was coming under a Catholic hospital system. It had to do with the directives for
health care...
The big directives.
We were dealing with Rome, and we were dealing with the Catholic Dioceses of the United States. So
yes, Brackenridge was a big party.
And Bishop [John E.] McCarthy was so good.
Yes, he was. Bishop McCarthy just recently died, and he was a great help too.
In order to serve the poor. And it’s still going on I believe.

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Yes, it is.
With a new one, a whole new hospital.
Yes, it is. Children’s. Yes it is.
That’s great.
When I look back... When I was preparing for this, I was 67 years of service as a Daughter of Charity, and
I look back at it, and it’s been an honor, it’s been a privilege, and I see it with gratitude and with
thanksgiving for having had numerous opportunities to serve. Actually, I forgot a couple.
As I concluded my ministry in Austin, I also had the opportunity to serve in Gould, Arkansas; and also in
El Paso, Texas; and in Nashville, Tennessee, either as a board chair of the health ministries there or as a
committee member in St. Thomas Health in Nashville. And I also had two other areas, including
ministries, were in Nashville and in Perryville. Going back to Perryville, I served on the board of the
Association of the Miraculous Medal for a period of time.
That was full circle from your very beginning?
Yes, it was full circle from the very beginning.
I look back at my life and I see special opportunities over and over again of many times when I was
encouraged to grow both spiritually, physically, and emotionally. I was encouraged to develop those
qualities that would bring me closer to the people and closer to God, and when I was looking at the
material and answering the questions and working through those, I came to the realization that I had
not said about my sister companions, the sisters that I lived with. When I looked back...
There’s a bunch of them.
I lived in community all of those—My sisters in community, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did if
I didn’t live in community with the companions—There’s a song “Companions on my Journey,”and
definitely I recall those many missions that I had, included in those mission is my relationship with all the
sisters. So, I lived with them, I worked with them, I ministered with them, I agreed with them, I
disagreed with them, I grew beside them, and I am grateful for all those who were part of my life.
Sister Helen, you’ve shared a lot about how you were really present for a lot of the big major moments
both in our country with the Civil Rights and with the assassinations and then also with the church with
the Vatican Council. I wondered if you’d take a couple minutes if you would to reflect on life now, here,
where our biggest thing is reading the paper or watching the news. How do you feel about living here
[The Sarah Community in Bridgeton, MO]? It’s not all Daughters. We live with other communities. We
live with laypeople. You’re experiences would lead you this direction I would think, but, do you have any
thoughts on the life now as your ministry here?
First of all, I’m very happy to be here.
Yes, me too.
I’m very happy to be living here. I find it very welcoming place. I often tell people that it feels very
much at home. I feel good about being here. People are not nosy. They’re very helpful if you need
help, but they’re not nosy. So you have the opportunity to be in your apartment and be in the chapel

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and have the opportunity for Mass. It’s a great blessing. It’s a great blessing. I’m trying to learn how to
role. I’m trying to learn how it is that this is my life now. However long God gives me, for the rest of my
life, the opportunity to not have such a rigid schedule or so many opportunities that I can’t just sit back
and say, “Well, maybe I can do that tomorrow. Or maybe I can do that the next day.” I’m very grateful
to be here. You talk about there are widows and widowers, there are couples, there are sisters of
various congregations. All of us live in a sense in community, but at the same time, there’s a privacy and
there’s a community that comes together very easily. Very easily. I really do love it here.
Me too. It’s great. And we have time for prayer.
Oh, yes.
We were so busy in our apostolic life. Not that we’re not apostolic.
Yes, very much.
Well thank you so much.
You’re welcome.
That was wonderful. I learned a lot from you myself.

Dublin Core

Title

Brewer, Sr. Helen, D.C. Oral History

Subject

Brewer, Sr. Helen, D.C.; Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul; School integration; Children's Health Insurance Program (U.S.)

Description

Sister Helen Brewer discusses her education by the Daughters of Charity, her decision to join the community, her family life during World War II, desegregation of schools in the South, teaching in San Francisco in the late 1960s, and the challenges of expanding health service at Seton Medical Center in Austin, TX

Creator

Brewer, Sr. Helen, D.C.; Matushek, Sr. Cecile, D.C.

Source

Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD

Date

2019-07

Contributor

Keefer, Scott (Transcriber)

Rights

Permission for any type of publication of archival materials, including text, photographs, video, or audio must be secured from the Daughters of Charity Communications Director before publication.ÿ Contact archvies staff for appropriate forms and contact information During the lifetime of the interviewer and interviewee, permission must be secured from the individuals directly.

Format

Audio/mp3; Application/pdf

Language

English

Type

Oral History

Identifier

Brewer, Sister Helen Oral History

Coverage

1934-2019

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

Matushek, Sister Cecile, D.C.

Interviewee

Brewer, Sister Helen, D.C.

Location

St. Louis, MO

Original Format

MP4

Duration

0:31:40

Citation

Brewer, Sr. Helen, D.C.; Matushek, Sr. Cecile, D.C. , “Brewer, Sr. Helen, D.C. Oral History,” Sisters of Charity Federation Archives, accessed July 14, 2024, https://scfederationarchives.org/items/show/78.

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