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.
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.
Mass will be celebrated for Sister Helen when a gathering is possible. To make a memorial contribution for Sr. Helen, click here, or write to Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, 1520 Ralston Avenue, Belmont 94002.
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.
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.
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
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 Dolore 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)