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She's 99 and still answers the call to serve

Sr. Helena McCarthy has received the call of religious life many times over. The 99-year-old Sister of St. Joseph received her first call when she followed in her sister's footsteps to enter the convent in 1932. But now, calls come daily, as McCarthy uses the phone to pray with friends, family and people needing a listening ear.

"People say life begins at 40. I think it begins at 90," McCarthy said of her years at her new apostolate in telephone ministry.

The calls most often come locally from friends and family in the Toronto area, but there are also connections made outside of those circles. Just recently, a young man from Alberta called, a grandson of a friend, and he and McCarthy prayed together.

She has found that her role is often to remain silent, and help the caller work through the problem and prayer.

"It's important for me and for them," McCarthy said. "I've become a listening apostolate. People can solve their own problems."

Sr. Helena received a big hug from Pope John Paul II during World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto.

On the phone or not, McCarthy never forgets the people she has promised to pray for. In fact, she begins her day with prayers that reach out across the world.

"Every morning I sit on my bed and I face east and west and south and north and say, 'My God, every single person of the world is your child and you love them and I will put them in your care,'" McCarthy said.

She admits she is not as mobile as she once was ("I'm on an armchair sabbatical," she jokes). Getting to 99 has brought with it challenges, including the loss of her vision. Still, McCarthy believes there is no excuse to slow down. She uses her time to pray with others, reflect on the psalms (which she listens to on tape) and learn from the radio. "I like to think of my life as an apostolate of presence, being not doing."

Before the calls came the call, and McCarthy has happily taught, volunteered and studied over the course of her religious life.

"As I did, my love for the church grew very much," she said.

In her early years of religious life, she taught in schools throughout Canada, starting with St. Joseph's College School before heading west to Vancouver and Rosetown, Sask. After returning to teach in the Toronto area for some years, she accepted the opportunity to retire at age 65, but with big plans for what she could do in her years ahead.

"I could have kept on teaching, but at that time teachers were very plentiful," McCarthy said. "I felt it wasn't fair to carry on so I retired from teaching."

With her retirement came the opportunity to volunteer. She spent a good amount of time at the Bond Street entrance of St. Michael's Hospital (which was then the front entrance) as a receptionist. Her friendliness and spirit captivated staff, visitors and fellow volunteers. It also landed her in some unlikely situations, like in a well-photographed embrace with comedian John Candy on the front page of Toronto newspapers after his appearance at a hospital fund-raiser.

She also stood on the pitcher's mound at Toronto's Skydome to throw the first ball at a game honouring 100 years of St. Michael's hospital, and attended a dinner and prayer service at Ottawa's House of Commons.

Her retirement (and penchant for doing two or three things at once) also allowed McCarthy to get involved in several faith movements, including Cursillo and the Charismatic Renewal, as well as working with Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.

"I found out how much people loved God and loved the church and wanted to know more," McCarthy said. "That was a very wonderful growth period for me."

McCarthy now lives at the Motherhouse at St. Joseph's Morrow Park, where she reflects on her experiences as teacher and volunteer, and they influence her as she prays with her friends and family over the phone. But not before she delivers her life daily to the will and call of God.

"Dear Holy Spirit," McCarthy prays, "I know you are going to enrich my life today. I am going to help the sun to shine wherever I am."

By Gillian Girodat
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Register, Feb. 20, 2005

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