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Sister Helen Rita McCartney

God granted Sister Helen Rita McCartney the privilege of living for more than a century-to 101 years, to be exact. Except for the last year of her life, she was blessed with good physical and mental health.

She was the second child born to Mary (Londrigan) and Joseph McCartney. They welcomed her into the family on January 19, 1906, and christened her Gertrude Mary. Another daughter and two sons (Helena, Leo, and Charles) completed the McCartney family. Both parents were of Irish ancestry and Michigan natives. Both came from the Flushing area, and after their marriage they made their home on a farm near Flushing.

Gertrude and her siblings attended a rural school for eight years. Gertrude must have been bright, for she wrote that she frequently assisted the teacher with the few children in the grade below her. She loved her teachers, and kept in touch with them for many years after graduation. When she finished elementary school, she attended Flushing High School and graduated in June 1924.

Because of her mother's illness, Gertrude remained at home for a year after graduation. Her sister had attended St. Joseph Academy in Adrian, Michigan, and in 1925 Gertrude registered at St. Joseph College (now Siena Heights University). While there, she became involved in sports, and played center on the basketball team.

Her cousin, Sarah Mulcahy, was a member of the Adrian Dominican Congregation known as Sister Grace de Lellis. She may have influenced Helena's attendance at St. Joseph Academy and Gertrude's choice of St. Joseph College, as well as her later entrance into the Congregation. A definite influence was the fact that Gertrude was told several times that she should become a sister. She spoke to a priest about this, and he told her, "Go right away!" She wrote, "Like the apostles, I did just that."

On February 4, 1926, Gertrude entered the Adrian postulate. She had hoped to remain in Adrian and finish her sophomore year at the college, but she was sent almost immediately to St. Alphonsus in Deerfield, Michigan, where she was assigned to teach in an elementary classroom. One of the first questions asked her was, "Do you know music?" She had had some training in piano so she answered, "Yes, some." Her assignment, therefore, included giving music lessons after school and on Saturdays.

She returned to Adrian for the summer, and received the habit and her religious name on August 12, 1926. Again she was sent out to teach, this time to St. Rita School in Chicago where she ministered in the eighth grade and also gave music lessons. At the end of the teaching year, she returned to Adrian and entered into the required canonical novitiate year.

Since she was a good driver, she spent much of her novitiate year driving sisters to various destinations. She wrote:

I spent the whole year waiting for sisters going to and from hospitals. The companion I enjoyed most was Sister Gerald [Barry]. We spent many pleasant times together. We prayed together, read books together, and laughed together at so many incidents.

On August 7, 1928, she professed her first vows with her group. Her teaching assignments after profession kept her in Michigan for most of her ministry years, except for a few years in Ohio. Almost immediately after profession she left for Detroit where she taught 72 junior high students at Visitation School for a year.

She began her high school ministry in 1929 as a teacher of science and language at St. Paul in Grosse Pointe. As a result of summer study, in 1930 she received a bachelor's degree from the University of Detroit with a major in Latin and minor in French. In January 1931 she was transferred to St. Theresa in Detroit where she finished the year and taught math in addition to science and language.

She returned to St. Paul for four more years, then spent seven more years at St. Theresa in Detroit. She wrote, "In 1941 Monsignor Carroll Deady made arrangements with WWJ to have a Science Nature Class Demonstration at St. Theresa High School, and I was the teacher."

In 1942 she was assigned to St. Mary School in New Baltimore, where she served as superior and principal. These were the years of World War II, and most of the young, able men had gone off to battle. No male coach was available, so because of her ability in sports, she also coached the girls' and boys' basketball teams and the boys' baseball team. After five years, she was assigned again to Visitation in Detroit, and three years later to St. Paul in Owosso for ten years, the last six as superior and principal. She had been continuing her study at the University of Detroit, and in 1950 the University awarded her a Master's Degree in Biology.

Sister Christa Marsik, who lived in Corunna, four miles from Owosso, was a junior at St. Paul High School at that time. At the wake, she remembered Sister Helen Rita as enthusiastic, kind, "always in touch with the students and what they needed." She encouraged many activities, including a homecoming parade and a yearbook. Both Sister Helen Rita and Christa came from farming roots, were friendly, and Christa sometimes assisted in classrooms in emergencies.

One day in eighth grade I found myself taking over in the classroom. The sister who had that class was sick. It was a day in February ... About 2:15 there was a knock on the door. It was Sister Helen Rita. She said, "The weather is terrible. You had better go home." My brother Joe and I got our things together, and we went to the car. My older brother had gone to the Service, and had left me his car to drive. I was seventeen, and had never driven in bad weather. But that day everything was ice. The maintenance man cleaned the windshield for us, and we started out. We crept all of the four miles to Corunna. That's just an illustration of how much in touch she was with the students' needs.

Sister Helen Rita spent the years 1960 to 1963 at St. Lawrence in Utica, followed by a year at SS. Peter and Paul in Ruth and a year at St. Augustine in Detroit.

The year 1966 began her only years outside of Michigan: four years in Ohio-a year at St. Mary in Swanton, where she also coached the girls' volleyball team and the boys' basketball and baseball teams, and three years at Hoban Dominican High School in Cleveland. She wrote that in 1966 Consumers Power Company sent twenty high school students to an Atomic Commission Session in Chicago, and she was the teacher chosen to accompany them. "What an invigorating and refreshing group to work with!" During the summers, she found time to travel, and visited Hawaii, Rome, Ireland, and Puerto Rico.

She spent the summer of 1967 at Mount St. Mary in St. Charles, Illinois. She wrote:

While there, I was asked to go to the Argonne Labs to do some injecting of three so-called drugs into healthy rats. The purpose was to observe whether or not the livers of the rats were damaged. Upon dissecting the rats, I found that all the livers were damaged. Needless to say, these drugs did not go on the market.

She returned to Michigan in 1969, to St. Gabriel in Detroit. Sister Mary Louise Gass was also ministering there at the time. At the wake, Sister Mary Louise said:

At that time, people in the State of Michigan were voting for or against abortion. The Federal Government passed it a few years later.
She set up an experiment in the classroom . . . an incubator with eggs in it. Each day she would open the incubator, take out an egg, and examine it with the class. I saw it at about one-third of the way through the incubation period. At that time, there was definitely a heart beating and veins.

Sister Helen Rita didn't do anything just because everybody else did. She did what she thought needed to be done!

Beginning with 1970 Sister Helen Rita taught at Powers High School in Flint for four years. Her last four years in the schools were at St. Mary in Royal Oak. She had been a very active teacher. She wrote that during her time in the schools she became involved in plays, cheerleading, and other activities, in addition to teaching and coaching. She always taught science, and over the years taught every other subject but shorthand.

Also, in her later years she received summer grants and studied at North Carolina State University in Raleigh; St. Joseph College in Emmetsburg, Maryland; Morgan State College in Baltimore, Maryland; Southern Connecticut State College in New Haven; Vanderbilt University in Tennessee; and the Polytechnicque Institute in Brooklyn, New York.

In 1978 she moved into Elmwood Plaza in Detroit, where she ministered for eight years. There she took Communion to the residents, worked part-time in the office, taught a craft class, then went into adult education. Her work in adult education she described as "eye opening." She worked with immigrants who wanted to learn English, ministered for a time with the deaf, and taught several different classes, including job training. She served in this ministry until 1991 when she had surgery, then continued part-time. One summer she and two other sisters took some trips to the Holy Land, Rome, and Russia. In his homily at the funeral liturgy, Father Roland Calvert spoke of that trip.

She went with Sisters Miriam Michael Stimson and Ruth James Donohue one summer to Russia and toured their schools. They found that the students wore uniforms and were usually in school by 6:00 am and stayed there until 6:00 pm. At one point, she purchased a bottle of vodka, since she'd heard that it was almost a religious rite in Russia to have some vodka. But when she offered a drink to one of the tour guides, he proceeded to drink the entire bottle (obviously a very religious man). Sister claimed never to have actually tasted vodka.

At the wake, Sister Aneesah McNamee shared a delightful memory of that time.

I want to share a memory of a wonderful and most delightful woman-one who I am sure touched many lives in her long, long, long life.
I met Sister Helen Rita in 1995, the year I was a candidate. Sister Patty Harvat and I went to Detroit for an evening with the sisters, planned to get to know the "new kid on the block." Sister Helen drove herself to the gathering from the other side of town [ at the age of 89]. Everyone was a bit nervous.
She was amazing that night-told me stories, made me laugh, shared her love for life and for the people she worked with. I will never forget that evening! Through the years, whenever I talked with her, she would tell me that she, too, remembered the night we met in Detroit-that she would always remember. That touched me-that she would remember!

Sister Helen Rita returned to Adrian in 1996. She was ninety years of age but seemed to be in reasonably good health. Those taking mail to the mailroom in Madden Hall saw her helping there, busy sorting mail and with other duties. Others passed her in the hallway between Madden Hall and the Dominican Life Center as she walked back and forth from her apartment to the mailroom. She ministered in the mailroom for ten years, until shortly after she turned 100 years of age. Father Roland Calvert remarked at the funeral:

Sister Helen Rita constituted the reception committee as you came in each morning to get your mail. If I had mentioned the Holy Land, or other places she had visited, in a homily, she always shared a lively commentary of her own experiences in that place.

Her 100th birthday was celebrated by everyone on the Motherhouse campus. At the large party, packed with well wishers, she told everyone that she didn't feel 100, she felt about 50. Also, at that birthday party, she received some honors. The Adrian Postmaster presented her with a special letter of thanks for her work with the mail, State Representative Dudley Spade gave her a proclamation, and the mailroom staff sang a song for her. And, of course, there was a beautiful cake and other refreshments.

In a short while, her health began to fail, and God took her to eternity on September 8, 2007, celebrated as the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

A wake-remembrance service for Sister Helen Rita was held on September 10 in St. Catherine Chapel. Sister Mary Sue Kennedy, Prioress of Adrian Crossroads Mission Chapter, welcomed and extended sympathy to Sister Helen Rita's nieces and nephews who were present, and to her many Dominican friends. She summarized Sister Helen Rita's life and ministry, and spoke of her last days. "Her health began to fail little by little, until her 101-year-old body just wore out."

On September 11, 2007, Sister Helen Rita's funeral liturgy took place. Father Roland Calvert, OSFS, was the celebrant and homilist. Father closed his homily with these words:

God gave her over a century of life and she lived it to the hilt. She is now in a place that St. Paul tells us is so filled with life that we cannot even begin to imagine it. "Eye has not seen and ear has not heard what God has prepared for us," he says. She is reunited with her parents and family and friends and enjoys the fullness of life forever in the arms of her God. We rejoice with her this day.