Sister Helen (Thomas Julie) Dugan (1919 – 2020)

Even at 101 years of age, Sister Helen was always young at heart, known for her sense of humor, quick wit and phenomenal memory. She loved all the children she ever taught and even remembered birthdays of those she taught many years ago. She didn’t just promise to pray for people; she did it, caring deeply about others’ joys and sorrows.

Sr. Helen died peacefully at the Notre Dame de Namur Province Center, where she had lived since 2003, just a week after enjoying socially distanced celebrations of her birthday with the Sisters and with her family.

The third in a family of four girls and three boys, Helen and her sisters helped care for the boys after their father died and while their mother worked. After graduating from Notre Dame High School, San Francisco, and working for a short time, Helen declared her intention to enter the Sisters of Notre Dame. One mischievous brother warned, “Helen, they will never keep you.” But, of course, they did!

Helen, at first known as Sister Thomas Julie, was a born teacher. Parents and children will remember her from elementary school classrooms in Carmel, San Jose, Santa Clara, Belmont, Yuba City, Santa Barbara, Portland, Oregon and Seahurst, Washington. Others will remember her from more recent years when she tutored children and supported teachers at Notre Dame Elementary School in Belmont.

Sr. Helen also loved her ten years of ministry at John XXIII Senior Center in downtown San Jose, helping with BINGO, rummage sales, dances and Reno trips. Edie McLachlan, the former Director at the Center, counted on Sr. Helen and still marvels at Sr. Helen’s ability to remember everyone’s names, faces and stories.

Besides living through a century of major changes, she survived a hospital stay with Covid-19, thanks to the loving care and attention she received at Sequoia Hospital and from her niece, Cathy Dugan, MD, and family. The Sisters are also very grateful to their health care coordinator, Ann Comer, to caregivers Sherry Chiapelone, Ellie Aragon, and to Pathways Hospice.

Sr. Helen enjoyed a socially distanced drive-by celebration of her 101st birthday with her family and friends.

There is no question about Sister Helen’s being remembered; she is impossible to forget and will be deeply missed by her many friends, former colleagues and students, by her loving “Dugan Clan” and by all her Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

As her 2020 birthday banner said, "We are “Counting our blessings, all 101 of them!”

Click here to read some of Sr. Helen's favorite quips!
Sr. Helen Dugan's Jokes and Quips

Sr. Helen's 80th Jubilee Profile, prepared in Summer, 2020.

Sr. Helen celebrated her 100th birthday in grand style in 2019. The Province Center was crowded with friends and family at her Irish-themed party which featured everything green, including the punch. As a special treat, there were three Irish dancers – two of whom were Notre Dame Belmont students. Sr. Helen herself provided some great entertainment, demonstrating her quick mind and formidable memory.

Like fine wine, she improves with age!

This proud daughter of Northern Ireland immigrant parents, Helen was third in the line of four girls and three boys who grew up in the Mission District of San Francisco. Her father died when the children were all of school age. While their widowed mother cooked and cleaned at Notre Dame High School and convent, Helen and her sisters attended school there and helped to care for the boys.

At age 19 Helen declared her intention to enter the Sisters of Notre Dame. One mischievous brother warned: “Helen, they will never keep you!” But, of course, they did.

Sr. Helen’s life and ministries are characterized by her energy and her sense of humor. She recalls that once, during an art training course as a young teacher, the class was assigned to draw a tree. When the Sister checked Helen’s picture, she was puzzled. “Sister what is THAT?” she asked, to which Helen innocently replied “A tree.” Sister noted, “It doesn’t look like a tree.” Without missing a beat, Helen clarified, “Well, the wind was blowing.”

She insists she chose teaching because she hated to cook; in truth, teaching chose Helen. The many students whose lives Sr. Helen has touched will tell you that she was a born teacher and very much loved, especially because of her great sense of humor. She has a wonderful memory for names and birthdays of former students and a host of delightful stories. Sister taught at St. Mary and St. Joseph elementary schools, both in San Jose, at Notre Dame in Yuba City and many other schools.

Sr. Helen Dugan performs in a skit.

One mission that stands out for her was being a founding member (1943) of the elementary school community in Carmel, where classes were first held at Villa Angelica during WWII. The Villa with its wide patio was just a step from the ocean. Its present bedrooms served as classrooms until the new school was completed at Carmel Mission. She is still in regular contact with some of those students.

After 33 years as a teacher she found another very different population to work with at both the Notre Dame Villa Infirmary in Saratoga and the John XXIII Senior Center in San Jose. Her bingo games, raffles, rummage sales and friendly interactions made her a favorite there too. “Everybody knew and loved her," Sr. Aileen Bermingham recalls. “There was one older gentleman who came in every day, and one morning asked ‘Sr. Helen, will you marry me?’ Sr. Helen replied very sweetly ‘Well, not today Wilber!’”

Later, in retirement, she went back to her love of teaching, and tutored for many years at Notre Dame Elementary School, Belmont. When she turned 90 in 2009, the NDE students made a large poster for her, proclaiming “90 things we love about Sr. Helen.” They loved her humor, her heart, her smile, her always positive attitude, her spirit, her faith, and clearly, her ability to support students and colleagues. At her 90th birthday family celebration, one of her nephews, one of the more than 100 Dugan family members to attend, eloquently stated that Helen is the family’s spiritual anchor.

Sr. Helen Dugan tutors a student at Notre Dame Elementary School, Belmont.

Reflecting on her long life, Sr. Helen is grateful for her vocation, for her good health, her “family” in Notre Dame; and for her own big and loving Dugan clan. Of her immediate family she says, gratefully: “We lived a frugal life but were rich in all the ways that matter!” But Sr. Helen’s “family” extends far beyond the boundaries of the Dugan clan, as so many others claim her as their own. And certainly Notre Dame has been the richer for her presence!

Sister Helen's Ministries

Good friends Sisters Helen Dugan and Ann Stubbe enjoyed watching Golden State Warriors and San Francisco Giants games.

1943-47 Notre Dame Elementary School, Carmel, CA
1947 Cook at Novitiate, Saratoga, CA
1947-50 St. Mary Elementary School, San Jose, CA
1950-52 Junipero Serra  Elementary School, Carmel, CA
1952-55 St. Clare School, Santa Clara, CA
1955-56 Immaculate Heart of Mary School, Belmont, CA
1956-60 St. Stephen Elementary School, Portland, CA
1960-61 Holy Angels Elementary School, Yuba City, CA
1962-64 St. Joseph Elementary School, San Jose, CA
1964-65 St. Clare School, Santa Clara, CA
1965-67 St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School, Seahurst, WA
1967-70 St. Mary Elementary School, San Jose, CA (Principal and Teacher)
1970-71 Dolores School, Santa Barbara, CA
1971-72 St. Clare School, Santa Clara, CA
1972-76 Junipero Serra Elementary School, Carmel, CA
1976-80 Core Group Province Renewal, Saratoga, CA
1980-1990 John XXIII Senior Center, San Jose, CA
1991- Development Office, Saratoga, CA
1998- Notre Dame Villa, Saratoga, CA
2003- Notre Dame Elementary School, Belmont, CA (Tutor)


  1. Dear Helen, I have a picture of you in ND uniform, remember me R and Mary Hansen? I fell thrr the skylite? Went back to public school after that, missed ND badly. RN from St Francis, San Francisco, worked 26 years. taught nursing 10 yrs. vol Forest Service 12 yrs. Now living in Mancos, CO 18 yrs now. Will be 95v in jan 3 kids, my girl died of cancer last year ar60 yr; still coorespond with Barbara Puhl, Mary's daughter. congratulations on your great life. 3315

  2. I (Robin Coats) knew you as Sister Thomas Julie at Holy Angeles School (now St. Isidore's School) in the late 1950s. I was only there in my 7th and 8th grade. You may have known my two younger brothers, Robert and Francis, since they went to Holy Angels for all eight years. After Holy Angels and then the local public high school, I majored in math at Stanford and received my Ph.D. in economics from U.C. Berkeley. I taught at USC for 6 years and then went on to specialize in energy economics in the private sector. I am now retired. We have lived in Pasadena for over 40 years but I have never forgotten the sisters at Notre Dame (Marysville) and Holy Angels. You were all very special.

    1. Thank you for writing, Robin! Sr. Helen will surely be delighted to know of your success and all of the Sisters will appreciate your good thoughts.

  3. So many pleasant memories of Sr. Helen at Most Holy Trinity in San Jose. I used to save Campbell's soup labels for her and she'd give me small prizes that I was always so excited to receive. My MHT years were from 77-81.

  4. We spent many memorable times at 7;30 A.M. mass with other Sisters and Father Xavier Harris. I was teaching Special Ed. at Barrett School and then Central School in the 70's. I would come to Mass every weekday on the way to my classes and get Spiritual support from God and you. My class was grades 4,5, and 6. It's lucky that I was young at the time! Then when I retired in 1991, I became a volunteer at Sequoia Hospital in the Spiritual Care Department. I always had a way to keep an eye on you. God Bless you and your wonderful Guidance. Love and Prayers, Connie

  5. Sister Helen, I will never forget your contribution to Giovanni Center & Jeanne d'arc Manor. I remember your help with blending the ethnic cultures and humorous handling of so many difficult situations. Thanking you from the bottom of my heart. It is a honor to know you.

  6. Sr. Helen was always so kind to us when we visited our dear Aunt Sr. Marie Elise known to her family as Sr. Beth! She was a great friend to her while they lived at the Province Center in Belmont together and I’m sure for many years prior. I’m sure they enjoyed their Irish heritage together. We miss our Aunt like crazy and wish you well!!

  7. Hello, Sister Helen! I am Susan Chaconas, the cousin of Sr. Kay McMullen. I want to thank you for your kindness shown to my grandmother while the two of you were at Mercy Retirement and Care Center in Oakland. You were a constant visitor and friend to her while she was living and recovering from a stroke at Mercy. When my daughter Amy, had twins, you made lovely blankets for the babies. We appreciate your kindnesses and wish you well as you celebrate 80 years of loving ministries.

  8. Congratulations Sister Helen. Missing your sweetness and good appetite. Much love, Becca (former SND Belmont respite cook)

  9. Dear Sr. Helen,
    The Entire Kettmann family wants to congratulate you on the wonderful contributions to all students that you have touched. I for one, have always gotten a kick out of your spunky personality and quirky sense of humour. When I would visit my Aunt , Sr.Aileen Donohue I always enjoyed seeing you as well. Congratulations!!!

  10. Dear Sr. Helen,
    I remember you so well after over 60 years. I believe you were my 3rd grade teacher at Holy Angeles in Yuba City. You were my mother's (Esther Limper) favorite nun and she kept in contact with you almost until she died at age 99 in 2015. She thought you were great fun.

    Thank you for your selfless devotion to our school and to all of the students you inspired over the years. Warmest best wishes for continued good health.
    Marcia Limper Fulham

  11. Dear Sister Helen, you such a good friend to me. Our time together at the St John Senior Center were the best part of my day! We managed to keep seeing each other until about 2003 when the distance between my new home in the Sierra foothills and your new home became too far for me to drive very often! I remember you with much fondness and love. You are in my heart always. Rip dear friend.

    1. Thank you for sharing your memories of Sister Helen, Trish. She is most definitely missed!

      (for the Sisters)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.