The students of St Lucy’s School, Wahroonga threw their artistic efforts into producing a beautiful gift to mark the recent 70th birthday of Sr Helen Merrin OP, the school chaplain, who holds a special place at the heart of the school.
Sr Helen has a long association with St Lucy’s, going back to 1974 when she lived at the Dominican convent at Wahroonga and taught at Prouille Primary School. In 1980 she joined the staff of St Lucy’s when it was a school for children who were blind or vision impaired.
During that time teaching blind or vision impaired children she learnt braille, a fact she describes as ‘fortuitous’. In 1994 Sr Helen lost the majority of her own sight due to a torn and detached retina. She started using a cane and got her first guide dog, Imelda in 1997. Four years ago, she lost the rest of her sight.
Sr Helen was invited to join the Board of St Lucy’s in 1999 and became chaplain in 2002. St Lucy’s is now a school for children with a range of physical and intellectual disability.
Michelle Jones, the Head of Charism and Pastoral Care at St Lucy’s says Sr Helen holds a special place in the school community and both staff and students wanted to celebrate her milestone birthday.
“One child from each of our 15 classes worked with the art teacher to draw a picture of Sr Helen and Miriam, her guide dog,” Michelle says.
“Then they painted over it with special 3D paint so that Sr Helen could feel it. We then invited everyone to send in a sentence or two of birthday wishes or reflection on what Sr Helen means to them, and one of our teacher’s aides brailed the messages. There were some lovely sentiments from people.
“We wanted to do it to make sure that she knows how much we love her. She is a very, very special person, a very giving person and this was just a way of giving something back to her.”
For Sr Helen, the gift came as a complete surprise.
“I didn’t anticipate anything,” she says. “I came to school that morning and during morning song I was given a box of cardboard pieces on which each class had done a drawing in puff paint of how they saw me and Miriam.
“Well, Miriam smiled in every one of them and I had tall, frizzy hair in many of them,” she laughs. “It was lovely. Then we had morning tea and the staff had organised a gift and that was beautiful too. It was all most unexpected, but beautiful.
” Reflecting on her long association with St Lucy’s, Sr Helen says the school and its students, staff and families, mean a lot to her.
“My current role as chaplain is really about being a presence, and particularly, I think, being a Dominican presence, because that Dominican tradition is something that the school holds as precious,” she says.
“When I became part of the staff there was a sense, I think, that in having me here, the school wanted families to see that people with disability can lead a life and can walk from A to B and do whatever.”
Sr Helen has faced a new challenge in recent times, losing her hearing and having a cochlear implant installed in June.
“My hearing went down really quite suddenly, over three years in both ears,” she says. “I wasn’t really looking to have a cochlear implant but it was suggested to me, so I did some research and asked some people and went to the Cochlear Implant Centre and the surgeon, Professor Catherine Birman, a beautiful woman, really encouraged me to have a cochlear implant, because vision loss and hearing loss is a bit overwhelming as a disability. So I had it in June and although it’s quite difficult and challenging at the moment, it’s on its way to being a great success, I hope.”
At 70 years old, Sr Helen feels herself slowing down a bit, but she still does Karate every week, having gained her black belt almost two years ago. She is also very involved with L’Arche, a network of communities that build and celebrate relationships between people with and without intellectual disability.
She says the students at St Lucy’s are a great inspiration to her, in terms of the determination and courage they show, and in their wholehearted living in the present moment.
“Their courage and joy, and their spirituality is so deep,” she says. “They really envelop God into themselves. They know that God is love, and is about loving, and they really respond to that, much more in song than in verbal interaction.
“I want people to know the gift that the children of St Lucy’s, and all people with disability, are to the world, because each one of us reveals an aspect of God, and that includes people with special needs.”
By Debra Vermeer