Sister Helen O'Neill 1973-80
Sister Helen O’Neill doesn’t believe in dwelling on the past, but visiting Gore in 2014 she took time to reminisce on her years teaching at St Peter’s College and where life has taken her since.
She was brought up on a dairy farm at Edendale, the oldest of five children and religion was always part of daily life for her. Later, taught by the Sisters of Mercy at St Philomena’s School in Dunedin, she was aware of an empathy with their work.
Her first job however, was with a government department in Invercargill as a cashier and she thought nothing of walking through the streets, laden money bag in hand, on her way to bank the takings. No thought of street crime in those days. After eighteen months in post she heeded her calling and joined the Sisters in Dunedin to begin her novitiate and embarked on teacher training by correspondence course.
Her first teaching job was at St Bernadette’s in Dunedin and she took her final vows and so began her life as a nun, one that she has never regretted. She has always been happy to be a Sister of Mercy.
In 1973, while working at Ranfurly Primary School, she was directed to go south and take up a teaching post at St Peter’s College in Gore. She loved the change of coming to this new secondary school and the freedom and spirit of the students here. There was a tangible sense of excitement in the air. The sisters were an integral part of the staff, with as many as six teaching here at one time.
Initially teaching art, RE and Social Studies, she went on the become Director of Religious Education in school and enjoyed the challenges of teaching RE as the syllabus was changing and she needed to be resourceful and creative in overseeing this change. Less appealing aspects of her job included umpiring hockey in the freezing cold. She was given this task, as she had once played hockey, but she admits to being vague about the actual rules of the game! There was also an incident when staff were entertaining family members in school and Sister Helen had made the chocolate cakes for the refreshments, forgetting to add any sugar to the mix. She became aware that there were a lot of unfinished cakes around…….
A particular highlight of the job was taking a disparate group of third formers, who had come together from about twenty different schools and needed cohesion, on an orientation to Lawrence. Examining the historic gold workings, doing rubbings in the graveyard and other team building activities made for a great bonding time which resulted in a trouble free school year.
Then as now, Sister Helen appreciated the lovely spirit evident in school. She finds the students focused and settled in their approach to life and feels that the service aspect of the curriculum helps the older children look out for the younger ones.
By 1980, another directive arrived, which meant that it was time to move on and she was sad to leave, but looking forward to the future and what turned out to be a good move. She went to Moreau College in Dunedin, where she was again employed in a teaching role, (but no hockey) and then on to Kavanagh College. This was also a new establishment with a vitality, energy and focus and it was exciting to be a part of this. She enjoyed this role from 1989 until 1994 when she became a pastoral worker at the college. Life in Dunedin was punctuated with trips abroad for spiritual renewal, study and travel and she spent time in Melbourne, California, the UK and Ireland.
Today, Sister Helen continues to carry out her pastoral work in the Dunedin area. She shares the ministry of several parishes reaching as far away as Palmerston and Port Chalmers. She still believes in living in the present, not looking back too much and being ready to meet future challenges.