Sister Joseph Helen Cunningham
1908 – 2012
Born: 1st July 1908
Entered Religious Life: 5th October 1931
Died: 9th January 2012
Two appreciations of Sr Joseph Helen Cunningham
Homily given at Sr Joseph Helen’s funeral by Sr Úna O’Neill RSC
We are standing this morning on holy ground: the place where Mary Aikenhead spent the last years of her life as an invalid – a woman whose vision, courage and practical common-sense gave birth to our Congregation and to our long and graced history of service of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. Today we are celebrating the life of Sr. Joseph Helen, a woman who cherished that charism, serving those in need with fidelity and generosity, and who also spent the last years of her life here in the Hospice.
The readings this morning are both comforting and challenging. In the Gospel Jesus speaks of himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. He invites us to put our hope and our trust in Him and in His promise to be with us, steadily and constantly as we try each day to walk his way, to speak his truth, to live his life. It is an apt description of the life and commitment of the woman whom we are remembering here.
In her 103 years of life, Sr. Joseph Helen lived through historical and global changes that are impossible for us to imagine. She experienced seismic shifts in Church and state. She witnessed wars and famines on a world scale. Through all of those years she remained steadfastly faithful to the constant core of who she was as an RSC. She was born Dorothy Cunningham in Ballacolla in Portlaoise on 1st July 1908. She was an only girl, with one brother, and was much loved by all. Her childhood and youth reflected the calm ordinariness of children’s lives at that time. Following her degree studies she spent some months caring for her mother who was ill and then secured a job teaching in Mountjoy St. School in Dublin. Her father was not impressed! His comment on hearing of that place was: “It doesn’t sound like much of a job but you like working for the poor and you’ve always been good at it”. She remained there until she entered the Sisters of Charity on 5th October 1931.
In the first reading we are told that God gives strength to the wearied; that those who hope in Yahweh will soar like eagles, run and no grow weary, walk and never tire. That was so true of J. Helen throughout her active life. She was missioned back to Mountjoy St. after her religious profession and taught there for 12 years. Following a year’s further study in Scotland, she went to teach in a Secondary Modern school in Walthamstow in England for a year. And then came the call to be one of our three founding Sisters of the Zambian Region, or Northern Rhodesia as it then was.
In 1948 they set sail, travelling for four weeks by boat – The Athlone Castle – rail, bus and lorry before arriving in Chisekesi Siding on a dark morning on 28th October 1948. Sr. Helen kept a diary of the journey which was printed for the 50th anniversary and which gives a fascinating insight into their journey and how they coped with, what was for them, such a strange and almost ‘alien’ environment.
One can only imagine the anticipation and anxiety, the challenge and the loneliness, the wonder and the doubts that marked that journey and her first months in Zambia. It was a place and people that she came to love and cherish. She committed herself to the education of girls and brought the gift of knowledge and freedom to countless women who still remember her with gratitude and appreciation. There are many past pupils with sad hearts in Zambia at the moment – their sadness at her passing tempered only by their gratitude that she is free from the debilities of her age. And that mourning is echoed this morning among our sisters there in the Region and here in this Chapel in the sisters who lived with her and shared her life for those 30 years.
Her first 15 years in Zambia were spent in the Teacher training college run by the Jesuits and began her work in promoting the education of girls – beginning with the setting up of a girls secondary boarding school in Roma in Lusaka. Nine years later she was appointed Regional Leader and on Independence day 1978 she was conferred with the Order of Distinguished Service for 30 years of outstanding service to the people of Zambia in the fields of Education and Social work.
While she was a formidable woman in many ways, with high standards and expectations, her devotion to her religious life and her commitment to education was recognized and appreciated by all who knew her. She was a strict disciplinarian, spoke the truth without apology and demanded very high standards. At the same time her heart was compassionate and her generosity and hospitality were known and appreciated by all.
Like all of us, Helen has known suffering and joy, tears and laughter, pain and happiness, loneliness and friendship. And she had strong relationships with her friends – too numerous to mention – but exemplified in the love and devotion of Sr. Mary Bernadette Collins and Catherine Fallon. Up to the end she valued and enjoyed her relationships with her nieces, nephews and other family members and followed their lives with interest, with love and with prayer.
In 1978 she was missioned to Ireland and worked on our Constitutions. Subsequently she was appointed as local leader to our community in Crumlin before her appointment to our Provincial Leadership team and consequent arrival here in Our Lady’s Mount in 1981.
Sr. J. Helen’s commitment to Mary Aikenhead’s charism was single-minded and she never compromised on that. The second reading confirms her attitude to life: nothing outweighs the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus. It is only through Him, with Him and in Him that we can find life and happiness and fulfilment. Rooted in that conviction, she endorsed and embraced anything that served the people for whom she cared in a better, more dignified or respectful way.
She suffered in her growing debility and weakness these last years and all of us – family, community, friends and colleagues – were saddened as we watched her suffering and her struggle to cope. In spite of the wonderful, caring staff who surrounded her and the sisters and friends who were her constant support, she had difficult and dispiriting days. Yet she never gave up . Her faith in Providence was the touchstone of her life. In the midst of all her pain and letting-go she was confident that he was with her, holding her, comforting her and in the end, calling her to himself. And when that call came, she yielded her spirit to the Lord, peace-filled, calm and trusting – blest with a death that had no struggle, no pain, no fear. And perhaps I can end with some words of hers, written in the diary of which I spoke, on her arrival in Chikuni: “Now that we have reached our Promised Land we must thank God and Our Lady for our very pleasant and on the whole easy journey which we have had . . . . “ Those words echo, not only the journey to Chikuni, but her life journey, now at its end as she moves, we believe, into the fullness of the Promised land of God’s life and love.
A reflection on the life of Sr Joseph Helen and her contribution to the Zambian Region by Sr Pereka Nyirenda RSC
It is a privilege and an honour to share these few thoughts with you as we bid farewell to a great woman and true daughter of Mary Aikenhead, Sr. Joseph Helen Cunningham. The morning after we got word of the passing on of Sr. Joseph Helen I was in the chapel in Mulanga praying and I looked over at a recent photograph of Sr. Helen that had been put on the centre piece in the Chapel – courtesy of Sr. Mary Fallon – and it struck me very deeply that I am here today as a Sister of Charity because of the courage and generosity of this woman Sr. Joseph Helen and her two companions who said yes to bringing the Congregation to Zambia 63 years ago. Indeed the Congregation is present in Zambia because of the ‘Yes’ of this gallant woman and her two companions and so it is with a deep sense of gratitude to God, to his Divine Providence and to Sr. Joseph Helen that I write these few words.
I did not know Sr. Joseph Helen when she lived in Zambia. I first met her when she came back to Zambia in 1988 with Sr. Malachy Tully for the Silver Jubilee of Roma Girls School. I had the privilege of attending Roma Girls School, a great school that Sr. Joseph Helen started and so I knew of her through the History classes in my first year of secondary school at Roma. The facts about Sr. Joseph Helen’s life that I will share with you were provided to me by Sr. Bernadette Collins, a faithful friend and companion of Sr. Joseph Helen who selflessly dedicated herself and her time to care for Sr. Joseph Helen over a number of years. She moved from being a weekly visitor to being a daily visitor and companion till God called Sr. Joseph Helen home.
Sr. Joseph Helen was professed, 78 years ago, in 1934. She taught for 12 years in Mount Joy St. She then went on to do a year’s course in Education in Scotland in 1946 and then taught for a year in England in 1947.
In 1948 she was one of the three sisters missioned to lead the Sisters of Charity into the then Northern Rhodesia – a British Colony (now known as Zambia). The journey to Northern Rhodesia took 6 weeks and Sr. Joseph Helen and her companions arrived in Zambia at Chisekesi siding on 28th October 1948.
From 1948-1963 she was engaged in the training of Primary School teachers in collaboration with the Jesuits. First in Chikuni and later in Charles Lwanga. Sr. Joseph Helen was committed to raising the status of women. She was a feminist before the word became fashionable – and in a very practical way – she devoted time and energy to organising literacy classes, home craft and all the home-making arts for the wives of the staff and of the students. Sr. Joseph Helen also started a girl’s boarding school in her early days in Chikuni at a time when the education of a girl child was considered a waste of time and money. This was a major breakthrough. The girls’ school in Chikuni still stands.
In 1963 she was asked to set up a Girls Secondary Boarding School in Lusaka Archdiocese to prepare young Zambian women to take their rightful place in their country which was about to become independent. The school began in Kabwata and moved to a site in Roma in January 1964.
From the onset Roma Girls earned itself a good name for the excellent education standards and the holist approach to education. Each day in Roma began with prayer and so God was a central part of our lives. In Roma the sisters shared the charism of the congregation with us. A concern for others and the less privileged was inculcated in us. We organised fund raising activities to help the needy. This spirit still lives on in current and past students of Roma who have formed an association, thanks to Sr. Kieran Monahan called EROGA (Ex Roma Girls Association) and they refer to themselves as EROGANS.
Recently one of the Ex Roma Girls passed away. She was a single mother. A few weeks after her funeral her former classmates met to discuss how they could support the 12 year old daughter their classmate had left behind and ensure that she finishes school. This is the spirit that prevails. The former pupils turn up in numbers when one of them is bereaved or passes away. There is a strong bond of union among them.
Sr. Joseph Helen was appointed leader of the Zambian region from 1972 – 1978. On Independence Day in 1978 she was decorated by the President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda in State House Lusaka and conferred with the “Order of Distinguished Service” for 30 years of outstanding service to the people of Zambia in the fields of Education and Social Work.
At the end of 1978 she was missioned back to Ireland to work on the constitutions and later was appointed assistant to the Irish Provincial for 6 years.
When she became in need to care she was moved to St Charles’ ward in Our Lady’s Hospice, Harold’s Cross. When Anna Gaynor was built she moved to Mary Aikenhead ward where she was cared for till God called her home.
There are many things one could say on the passing on of such a brave and courageous woman, the word that is uppermost for me is thank you. Thank Sr. Joseph Helen for the great example you were, thank you for your great love, commitment and loyalty to the Congregation. Thank you for coming to Zambia and sharing the Charism of Mary Aikenhead with us and thank you for your great contribution to the people of Zambia.
When Sr. Joseph Helen was able to read, I was always struck by her keen interest in all the communication that came from Congregation. During my visits she would very often to refer to things or people she had read about in the congregational circular or newsletters from the various areas of the congregation. Sr. Joseph Helen was also a great woman of prayer and prayed fervently for the needs of the congregation and for Zambia. She was always interested in Zambia and for many years could remember the names of so many of her past students and the many people she met when she lived in Zambia. This used to amaze me.
There is an internet based connection for the Ex Roma girls. Yesterday I asked the Erogans, who are based in different parts of the world if they had anything to say to Joseph Helen on the occasion of her death. The following are some of the comments from former pupils she had taught and those she had not taught but had heard of her:
This is the woman who moulded some of us with her firm hand, kindness and wisdom. We are what we are and where we are today because of her guidance. She was a mother to us while at boarding school. We shall remain forever grateful to Mother Helen. Erogans, as we celebrate her life, let us perform an act of kindness to someone today! May the Almighty God receive Mother Helen in His Kingdom!
On a lighter note, we used to call her “rail car” because she moved as fast as the rail car (a faster form of the Zambia Railways passenger trains!) and stealthily whenever she was checking us up at study time in the evenings. Before you knew it, she would knock on the window and call out the noisemakers’ names! She had a very sharp memory and knew each and every one of her students!
Jayne Kangwa née Ngwira (’72) – USA
We thank God for all her good works and for making Roma Girls the best and indeed for all her efforts in making Roma Girls a great school which shaped us and prepared us to be successful in Life. She will always be in our hearts.
Lillian Bollers née Lindunda (’76) – USA
I remember her for her motherly advice, especially when we were leaving Roma Girls for this rough world. Go well our mother and may your soul rest in eternal peace.
Helen Tembo née Mwanza (’79) – Zambia
She was before our time but in the best of Roma Girls tradition we knew of her and all that she had done to ensure that when we got to Roma it was the brilliant school it was. Go well Mother Helen.
Laura Miti (’83) – South Africa
As much as death brings about a sad feeling; a sense of loss, when one has ran their race and fought the good fight, it really is a time to celebrate for those that are left with the great memories!
Batuke Walusiku (’85) – Zambia
God gives and God takes! We will forever cherish the values she instilled in us that we still carry and have even passed on to our children. May she rest in peace Amen!!!!
Dr. Janet Ooala (’82)
We thank God for the foundation she laid for Roma Girls. Farewell Mother Helen Jennipher Hamoonga Sakwiya
I also got in touch with a few Sisters of Charity and they had this to say:
When I became a Religious Sister of Charity Mother Joseph Helen was the
Regional Leader of the Religious Sisters of Charity in Zambia. To her, every
member of the Congregation was very important. In an international
congregation where misunderstandings arose especially in the early days when
the African sisters were very few, I found Mother Joseph Helen to be very
impartial. She listened to me. She was very much immersed in the Charism of
the congregation and she used to come to the Novitiate to speak on the life
of our Foundress Mother Mary Aikenhead to the Novices. It was from her
sharing on the Charism that I felt very much enthused with the life of our
Foundress that even to this day I feel I owe a lot to her in my quest to
impart the love of our Foundress to others. Mother Joseph Helen will always be cherished in my heart. May the good Lord be gracious to her.
Sr. Margaret Mary Chileshe
Sr. Helen was a courageous lady, a person of courage and integrity but above all she was deeply spiritual and truly human. She had a great love for animals, a sense of humour and an ability to keep things in perspective. She had a brilliant mind and yet she was so simple. When I got up tight about things she would often say, “Will you have a bit of sense”
Sr. Mary Fallon
Sister Joseph Helen was a woman of faith and clear vision that directed her to live for the Zambian people particularly the girl child. She formed Christian women who occupy high positions in the Political and other spheres of society. We thank God for her gallant service to God and for the betterment of the situation of the child in Zambia. May God who rewards those who share a cup of cold water with those in need reward Sr. Joseph Helen for all she did to ensure that the girl child was valued in Zambian society.
Sr. Catherine Chileshe Snr
Sr. Joseph Helen is a great inspiration to the young sisters in the congregation due to her selflessness, courage and determination. We thank God for the precious gift of Sr. Helen to the Congregation, the Church and Zambia. We pray that God may receive her soul into his eternal kingdom thus continue to intercede for us so that many young people may be touched by the Charism of Service to the Poor and respond willingly and cheerfully.
Sr. Dominica Kabale
Finally Merdado Cardinal Mazombwe, a long-time friend of the congregation in Zambia had this to say about Sr. Joseph Helen. Mother Helen was a missionary who was a mother, educator, disciplinarian and a leader with love. Wherever mother was, she was a leader with love. So she will be remembered as someone who led with love.
As I reflect on the life of Sr. Joseph Helen I am reminded of Oscar Romero who said
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.”
Yes Sr. Joseph Helen did plant many seeds and lay many foundations she did provide yeast that has produced effects beyond her capabilities or imagination. We today are blessed and privileged to bear witness to the fruitfulness of her efforts through the testimonies of the Ex Roma girls, our sisters and many other people whose lives she touched
The saying of Mary Aikenhead for 12th January says, “Do the work you are about valiantly and disengage your heart from every will and wish but of accomplishing the holy will of God” (1st June 1831) Sr. Joseph Helen lived this in her life and showed us that it is possible to be so single minded and committed to accomplishing God’s will.
Sr. Joseph Helen you have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith. May you now rest in God’s eternal peace. Thank you Sr. Joseph Helen