The Gliddens — Margaret, Esther, Helen (Sister Mary Thomasine), Mary Ann McGovern (their mother), Mary, Rita.
An interview with Sister Helen
Written by Sister Maria V. Brocato, SCN
*The interviewer, remarks/observations are in italics.
Sister Helen Glidden, who had the name Sister Mary Thomasine before Vatican II, was born in 1925 in Lynn, Massachusetts to Henry Thomas and Mary Ann McGovern Glidden. She was one of ten children; her siblings were : Rita, Esther, Joseph, Margaret, Catherine, Mary, James, Edward, Henry Jr. Sister Helen has wonderful memories of her free and secure childhood. Her strong but very gracious mother came at a young age from Glen, County Cavan, Ireland to the United States. Her gifted, industrious father was a twin, who with his brother owned a men’s clothing and shoe store, as well as a jewelry store. He was always interested and involved in all of his children’s welfare, especially at school . He would meet them as they were dismissed from school with candy in his pocket. Their mother told them the real reason,” Your father wanted to check and be sure the Sisters didn’t have to give any scoldings.”
Because she realized that her daughter Mary Elizabeth was very much a clinging child, Mother Glidden decided that Helen must learn to be independent. Helen remembers, when quite young “crossing the street by herself and going to the local A&P Grocery to get beef for the stew”. She even told the grocer ”no fat or gristle, please.”
Throughout their school years the Glidden children attended St. Mary’s School staffed by the Notre Dame de Namur Sisters. The school year that seemed to stand out in Sister Helen’s memory was second grade, her First Communion year.
Before the day of her First Eucharist Helen had an experience that was memorable. Her teacher that year, Sister Crescentia, asked Helen to walk home with Marie Brown, one of her classmates, who was very sick. After asking a wise question about directions and distance, Helen accompanied Marie to her home. The day following Helen herself was sick but somehow she had a sense of Marie’s condition. When Helen returned to school the next day, she found out that Marie had died.
(What a shock and a comfort that Helen had offered her that kindness!)
Another memory of that special year of First Eucharist was the conviction that she wanted to be a priest. As young as she was, the seed of her vocation was evident within her. A visitor to her classroom had asked the children “What would you like to be?” Helen’s answer was,” I want to be a priest and take Jesus to the people.”
Her older brother Jimmy was not so sure that Helen would be able to follow such a calling. ”You’re not good enough. You can’t be a priest. You are just a girl.” After inquiring what Sisters did Helen answered him in this way , “ Well then, I want to be a Sister.”
Another memory is of two Sisters coming to the Glidden home for a visit as part of their mission to beg for donations.. Mother Glidden sent young Helen to the small local store for ginger ale to serve the guests. When Helen was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up , she had the same answer,” I want to be a Sister.” As the Sisters were leaving one of them quietly said to Helen,” I will pray for you every day if God chooses you.” It made Helen feel very important to think that a grownup was going to pray especially for her.
(How powerful is the strength of the prayer offered for us by others, often times without our remembering their promise.)
Notwithstanding these aspirations , there were some tomboy energies in Helen. When not yet in school, she once ignored her mother’s warning about climbing an apple tree. Of course she fell, which necessitated a trip to the doctor. Another time she begged her father, who cut his sons’ hair, to let her go to the barber for a haircut. Helen was finally allowed to pay a visit to One-Eyed Pete’s Barber Shop!
Helen always wanted a job. While in high school Helen decided that she wanted to be a playground instructor for the summer. She approached a local city official to ask. Although usually reserved for college aged students, he was persuaded to give Helen a job because of her large family experience. She was placed at a playground with challenging younger children. Thankfully, she found out that she was able to handle the responsibility. Another instance was when she was a senior in high school and she got a job in the office of a grocery store, taking care of lists, payments and messages to the clerks on the floor.
There is a distinct memory about the grocery store. Two separate Friday afternoons near dismissal time one of the Sisters , for an unexplained reason, called a group together and detained them. At the second Friday Helen bravely approached Sister and said,” I don’t want to be irresponsible about my job at the grocery store. I take the place of two of the bosses so they can take their lunch break. May I please leave?” There was no specific response to Helen but very shortly all the girls were dismissed.
!n 1943 ,after her high school graduation Helen, found a position in a large, international company with a location in Lynn. She worked hard . It was difficult, detailed work with young engineers working and checking on what she did. She worked every minute of her eight hours barely taking time for a break. A situation of real importance took place during her time there and Helen remembers it well.
One day a union steward came to her and said,” Helen , you need to go in to Mr. Johnson, our supervisor, and ask for a raise.” She objected, ”I’ve only been here a short time and am just a high school graduate. How can I do that?” The steward replied, ”You are doing the same as these engineering men. They are watching what you do and the creative ways you are going about it.” Helen went bravely in to Mr. Johnson, asked for a raise and told him the reason. At first he laughed but when she described her work in detail he agreed that, indeed she deserved a raise. Upon telling the union steward, he responded,” Women who do the work of men should receive the same pay!”
(This was 1943 and Helen is proud to have been a part of this early effort toward equal rights for women. After several more months of this exceptionally difficult and tiring work Helen, with her mother’s wise advice, decided to leave this job.)
Later when looking for another job she approached kind Mr. Berry with the Lynn (Massachusetts) Telegraph Office and asked for employment. He did not have any positions in Lynn. However, he was the Regional Manager for New England.” I can go anywhere,” Helen told him. She was given a position and went to Concord, New Hampshire and then Bidderford, Maine.
The call to religious life did not leave Helen and was made even more real when she was walking to work and noticed a nearby roof heavy and beautiful with snow and ice. She mentioned this to the other office personnel. She also thought someone was calling her name. She went to the outside door to see if someone was there. At that moment she heard a terrific and most unusual crash as the roof caved in from the weight of the snow and ice. Helen, who had just walked under that roof thought, “What have I been saved for? What have I been saved from?” One of Helen’s co-workers saw it as a sign and said to her, ”I think God wants you to be a Sister.”
When Helen went to visit Fr. McGlinchey about her call he suggested the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Later, he would write to Sister Mary Aquinas, SCN Novice Director, “ If I were young and chose to enter a religious community, I would go to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.” Interestingly, Fr. McGlinchey’s mother and Sister Mary Benigna Heslin, SCN, were lifelong friends so he knew of the SCN Community. Helen did not know any SCNs so she went to visit them at St. Peter’s Orphanage in Lowell, Massachusetts. This was no easy trip. Taking her little brother to enjoy the ride, they took a bus to Boston, then a train to Lowell.
After several visits to Sister James Ann Cruise and the Sisters in Lowell, Helen said to her mother,” Well, I ‘ll go and try it and see if I like it.” Her mother replied,” You can’t go through life just trying something, then giving it up if you don’t like it.”
(Wise and challenging advice from her good mother!)
At last Helen boarded the train for Louisville and spent several days at St. Joseph Infirmary before going out to Nazareth. Helen found novitiate life challenging and hard . The silence was difficult to keep, or maybe it wasn’t, because Helen thought if you whispered or talked in low tones that was not breaking silence. The hard physical work – washing huge pans in the Big Kitchen working in the Little Kitchen trying to get the trays from the Nazareth Infirmary washed up before Holy Hour, waiting on the Academy and College girls, mopping their dormitory floors .- these and others were not easy tasks. When there were misunderstandings Helen had the courage to speak her truth to her sister novices and to the novice director, Sister Mary Aquinas Kelleher. The latter listened to Helen’s need for more help in some of her work tasks and assigned more novices to share the responsibilities.
Helen’s conscientious attention to the jobs given to her bore fruit. Sister Mary Bonaventure Ice who directed the cleaning of the girls’ dorms offered to make, iron and pleat a cap for Helen in preparation for her “getting the habit.” ( For those of us who lived during these days we know this was no small gift.)
Besides that when Helen did such a good job working in the chapel Sisters Mary Alice Curran and Demetria Martin found her responsible and offered to “ make and do up” a second cap. The third cap was made by another novice, Sister Mary Roberta Gould (Madeline) who later left Community.
(Imagine Helen’s disappointment when Sister Mary Aquinas asked her to give up two of the three caps for novices who did not have a nice one for reception Day!)
After first vows in December ,1947 Helen was sent to St. Catherine Academy in Lexington, Kentucky. Although only there for eight months Helen, had the 8th grade, had to put on a play and plan the graduation. She knew it was too much for a beginning teacher. Helen remembers the advice of her father many years ago when he told his children,” Start at your own level. Then you can move on up.” Helen knew she needed to begin at a lower level.
When she visited with Mother Bertrand, Helen told her about the experience. Although she had heard good reports about Helen’s months of teaching, Mother Bertrand kindly understood. The next year Helen was sent to Little Flower School in Memphis, Tennessee. There she happily taught the 3rd and 4th grades.
Next followed five missions (1951-1968) in Helen’s native Massachusetts: Immaculate Conception School in Newburyport, St. Anne in Readville, St. Pius X in Milton, Most Precious Blood in Hyde Park and St. Edward in Brockton. At first she taught grade five but for most of these years it was grade seven.
Helen was next missioned at St. John School in Avenue, Maryland and asked to be both principal and teacher of grade seven. She found this year very difficult. She came to the close of the year knowing that she only wanted to teach. There was one very positive remembrance of that year in Hollywood. At a teachers meeting held by the Archdiocese of Washington Helen responded to a request to have her social studies class taped. The Diocesan Superintendent and PH.D. colleagues were impressed that gifted students in a small rural school in southern Maryland would receive such quality instruction. The following summer Helen was selected to be a member of the staff of a Catholic University workshop required of all Diocesan teachers of Grades 7 and 8.
Helen would return to Massachusetts and was assigned to Our Lady of Nazareth Academy in Wakefield. By this time Helen was known for her expertise in teaching social studies. She had always had great interest in history, geography and so teaching social studies was an enjoyment.
Provincial Barbara Peterson told the Sisters that they were free to look or ministry that was suitable and desirable to them, Helen wanted to learn Spanish. A priest she knew suggested that she might go to Puerto Rico. Helen was able to persuade Sr. Barbara that was a good choice for her and she spent three happy years teaching at Los Angeles Christodios in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.
Upon her return to the States Helen spent two years living with Sr. Jane Elizabeth O’Connell at St. Patrick Parish, Brockton, Massachusetts. Helen was involved there in Hispanic ministry.
After this mission Helen’s ministry would take a different direction as she began to be involved in pastoral care ministry. She received her Clinical Pastoral Education at Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona . She then served at St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, at Rosarian Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida, at St. Joan of Arc Hospital in Boca Raton, Florida, at Cardinal Cushing Hospital in Brockton, Massachusetts and , finally, back to St. Joseph’s in Lexington. In 2003 Helen came to Nazareth, living first at David Hall and then the Motherhouse.
(All italics are remarks/comments by the interviewer. I appreciated that Helen shared many insights and memories with me. One that I will take away is this quote from her: “When a stronger person intimidates one less strong, in my mind I call them ‘Little Bird’ and ‘Big Bird’.” May we all follow her advice and be champions of ‘Little Bird’)