I was born on June 1, 1930, the fourth child of Stephen and Mary Yuhas Chervenak. I am one of seven children, five girls and two boys. My sisters Ann and Mary and my brother, Father Steve, are deceased. My sister Margie lives in Ohio with Tina and my brother, Dr. John, and his family live in Arizona.
Both parents immigrated to the United States in the 1920s, coming through Ellis Island with high hopes for a better life. They settled in Homestead, Pennsylvania to raise their family, instilling in us a love for our Slovak heritage and our Roman Catholic faith. My father was a steel worker and my mother tended to the children. She cooked, baked and gardened. Family bonds were always strong. I think I learned from my mother to keep a positive outlook on life and to be willing to share with others. She also taught me how to cook and to can fruits and vegetables, and how to make the BEST chicken soup with a fresh kosher chicken! My father was frequently called by the Sisters in the local convent when they needed a handyman and he was always willing to help.
I attended Saint Ann’s school in Homestead through the fourth grade and transferred to the public school because my parents could not afford tuition. I graduated from Homestead Senior High School in 1949. I was unsure of my future but considered joining the Josephite Sisters. Before entering the convent I had to have a Latin class so I worked as a nanny for five children while taking this class. I also took a pottery class.
I visited several religious communities and then made a retreat at the Vincentian Sisters’ Motherhouse deciding then and there I wanted to be a Vincentian Sister of Charity. I think my call to religious life was partially attributed to Sister Marcellina Babjak, who was my CCD teacher at Saint Ann’s. I believed it was the Spirit who led me. I entered on September 8, 1950 but would have entered a year earlier but my youngest sister, Tina, was born. I stayed at home and helped my mother care for the new baby, a wonderful unexpected addition to the family.
I was received on August 12, 1952 and made perpetual vows on August 15, 1956
There were eighteen young women in my “group” in the novitiate. We were very different personalities but stuck together through thick and thin and had a lot of fun. I prayed to the Lord all the time in the novitiate and continue to do so today. My jobs were to mow the grass and do the dishes at the rectory. It was here that I decided to fill empty wine bottles with pop and take them back to the novitiate; so we could pretend to celebrate New Year’s Eve with wine and a party!! Someone reported me to the novice director. I had to explain what I did, I told her I thought it was a way we could have fun. I do not remember if I received any punishment.
I attended Mount Mercy College and Duquesne University from which I earned respectively my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in education. My teaching career began in 1953 as a kindergarten teacher at Saint Joachim School in Greenfield, Pennsylvania. I loved my first group of children. They were great! It was a very different experience of teaching at that time. I had a sliding board and a sandbox in the classroom. I did not have a lot of things that they do today but the children learned a great deal and we had fun. Over the next fifty four years I taught in the Pittsburgh and Greensburg dioceses, spending a total of thirty seven years at Saint Sebastian School. I always taught kindergarten or first grade. No matter where I was missioned I always enjoyed being involved in the life of the parish. Fish fries, donut sales, spaghetti dinners were an invitation to volunteer. I attended many baptisms, weddings and funerals. I loved cheering for the school teams at sporting events. At the beginning of the school year, I decorated my room in a popular theme that would appeal to my “little ones”. Every year at Halloween I dressed up in a crazy costume and at Christmas my children did good deeds to collect straws for Baby Jesus’s crib. By the end of the year I had received hundreds of hugs!
One day when I was at the drugstore a man who worked there shared his concern for his seriously ill son who was to start kindergarten. He feared the teachers would not be able to help him. I told him to bring him to school and I would introduce him to the teachers. What a surprise when the father and boy arrived and the boy was assigned to my class. The father left feeling that his son was in good hands.
Each child has been special to me and brought me great joy. From each one of them I have learned something. When I think about what I miss the most, it is their hugs and hearing them say, “I love you Sister Helen.” I hope I have helped them to grow in the wisdom, age, grace and to be the best person they can be. Two young children I taught died, one with a brain tumor and the other from a heart condition. I felt honored to have been close with these families. Their faith and love has been an inspiration to me. There is a book about one of them in the archives at Nazareth, Kentucky.
Besides teaching I have coordinated various fund raising activities, including the Saint Jude’s math-a-thon and read-a-thon yielding a total of ten thousand dollars in donations. In addition to these I have organized the Campbell Soup label program for schools and collected pop tabs to benefit the Ronald McDonald House. I have cut thousands of coupons to help the local convent. I served as Eucharistic minister at Saint Sebastian Parish and volunteered with the youth in the Appalachian ministry trips for seven years.
I retired from teaching in June of 2007. I shared these words at my retirement Mass with the congregation:
“I am grateful to God today for the gift and blessing my teaching experience has been for me. I believe I have received more than I have given. My life has been deeply enriched by the children and families, friends, colleagues and members of my own family who have shared my life over the years. Thank you for your goodness, your encouragement, generosity and support. It is my fond wish and prayer that God will abundantly bless you—and that you will find as much joy and satisfaction in what you do, as I have found.”
I shared these words at our faculty dinner:
“Thank you for being wonderful colleagues during my years here at Saint Sebastian’s School. You have all been a second family to me. I will miss you on a daily basis but I will always hold you in my heart—especially when you are all attending In-Service days before next school year and I am home sitting on my sofa drinking a cup of tea! Seriously, God bless and keep you—and give you continued joy and success!”
I remember the superiors of the convents of the various missions were strict. One superior, Sister Coleman Chandik would not let the Sisters have candy and would not get them anything extra. One Sister who cleaned the superior’s room would take a piece of candy and then would take turns giving it to the Sisters.
Sister Coleman had a Lists of Faults and she was always talking to the Sisters about their faults. The Sisters together would try to find ways to get around this list. Sisters were not allowed to go to ball games but a gentleman gave me two tickets and twenty dollars to the Pirates game. Sister Coleman allowed me and Sister Francine Olson to go to the game. Sister Francine and I knew we needed to get a souvenir for the other Sisters so we got peanuts and cherries. Sister Coleman would never get us cherries. When we returned to the convent we shared the peanuts with Sister Coleman and the other Sisters. Sister Coleman was proud of us for sharing. But I had hidden the cherries in my umbrella and later in the evening we Sisters went to the third floor and had a cherry party without Sister Coleman!!
I really enjoyed the Appalachian mission trips with the youth each summer. We would go to Kentucky and repair homes for the poor. We all slept on cots in the armory. One evening shortly after I lay down a girl threw a pillow at me. What a surprise she got when I retaliated by throwing the pillow back at her and mine too. We enjoyed a pillow fight. I think the youth was surprised that Sister Helen enjoyed the fight. They saw that I was human!
One of the most difficult experiences of my life was watching by brother, Father Steve suffer from four strokes. He lingered in pain for some time at the Vincentian Nursing Home. I would visit with him every day and my sisters would visit on Saturdays. I prayed over and over for God to call Father Steve home and relieve him of his pain, but Father Steve kept suffering. On August 22, 2016 I went to Mass on the feast of the Queenship of Mary. I looked at the crucifix and told the Lord I was mad at Him for not taking Father Steve to heaven. I told Him I was going to pray to Mary and Mom to intercede for me and take Father Steve to heaven. Mass was over at 11:25a.m. My cell phone rang and a Sister from the home told me that Father Steve had just passed. In my heart I believe that he died after my prayer to Mary and Mom to intercede.
When I retired from teaching I did not really retire, I traded working with the very young for driving senior Sisters to their doctor’s appointments and wherever else they need to go. My hope for the community is simple—that the gift of charity which is our legacy will continue forward. I hope and pray that I can continue to give myself to others to help and support them. I would more than anything like to be a peacemaker!
Interviewed by Sharon Cecil, SCNA
October 25, 2016