Sr. Helen Cecilia Miller, 1913 – 2015

Born May 14, 1913, Helen Cecilia's early years weren't easy and the family sent Helen to a Catholic boarding school. Her rambunctious, high-spirited ways led to more than one change of school and many teachers wondered what would become of her. But inspired by the Sisters at Moreland Notre Dame, Watsonville, Helen dreamed of becoming a missionary to Congo.  She never made it to Africa, but she did become a Sister of Notre Dame and would go on to teach thousands of children.

Sr. Sharon Joyer and Sr. Helen Cecilia Miller share a hug.

Sr. Helen died February 13, 2015 at the Mercy Care Center, at age 101, after a heart attack weakened her. But until the age of 100, she lived independently in her own apartment in San Jose–a frail but feisty Sister who welcomed visitors and saw her kitchen table as ground zero for her prayer ministry. With a votive candle burning and always, a list of names and needs, she prayed. She believed in the importance of prayer because "the world is such a mess!" 

But for over four decades, she was a teacher extraordinaire! Many former students remember how she went out of her way to help them both in and out of the classroom. At one point in her career, though she had a master's degree in history, she was told she would be teaching chemistry and math in high school.  Stumped by this request, she thought "If you want me to do it God, you have to help me."  She was sent back to school to earn a second degree…this one in math and science and would go on to become a demanding math and science teacher who believed in each student's potential.

In 1980, after 46 years of teaching, including at Sacred Heart School (San Jose), Notre Dame High School (San Jose) and Notre Dame High School (Belmont), Sr. Helen decided it was time for something different. She loved being a spiritual director at the Cenacles Retreat Center in Carmichael for three years.

A renowned baker, for decades family, former students and neighbors were the recipients of her delicious bread, cakes and cookies. The treats were one way she let people know she cared about them. Long-time friend Marlene de Nardo shares another way, "As a young Sister trying to learn the ropes, living with Sr. Helen Cecilia was refreshing!  Her sense of humor made life so much more fun.  I recall many evenings after work, dinner and dishes, that Sister would walk with me outside to the school yard.  We talked and laughed about the day's ups and downs while hitting a tether ball back and forth!"

Sr. Helen Cecilia remained feisty in spirit and full of humor till the end.

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  1. Bless Sr. Helen Cecelia! When I was a very awkward 13-year-old, she was principal and 8th grade teacher at St. Mary’s School in San Jose (you might want to add that school to your list). She could always help me to laugh through tears, and I knew she cared about me, just as she cared for every single pupil in the school (this was 1949-50!!) If the students got wild, she was even wilder and quickly had order restored and everyone back in place. She was always a wonder, an encourager, a gifted teacher, and a truly original spirit! I am so grateful for my chance to have known her….

    1. My earliest memory of Sister Helen was in 1955 upon entering St Mary's on Third Street, San Jose. She was dynamic and full of energy – always playing baseball with the boys at lunch! I was fortunate to have her again at NDSJ and then later getting to know her in a deeper way as an adult sharing many fond memories. Her mind was always in motion as she prayed daily for everyone and for peace…

  2. Sr. Helen Cecilia told a great fib in 1952. Shortly after giving me a D in conduct, she wrote a glowing recommendation to St. Joseph's College seminary for me. I only saw it when I became Dean of Students there. I read it annually to incoming freshmen telling them of the circumstances of its authorship and that they should keep the faculty fooled!

  3. Sister Helen was my first grade teacher in Santa Barbara, California. I had a difficult year in kindergarten in a local public school; the emphasis was on conformity rather than learning — questions weren't encouraged and I kept asking them. My mother took me to Dolores school for first grade, and there I met Sister Helen, truly sent by Heaven. I've loved school ever since, and will never forget Sister Helen.

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