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Catholic nun found her calling in the classroom and left a lasting impression

Sister Helen Lange, who lived to be 105, ‘was just an easy person to be around’
Many of the students in Sister Helen Lange’s 1956 sixth-grade class at Saint Martha in Sarasota stayed in touch with their teacher for the rest of her life. (Photo courtesy Valerie Crane)
Many of the students in Sister Helen Lange’s 1956 sixth-grade class at Saint Martha in Sarasota stayed in touch with their teacher for the rest of her life. (Photo courtesy Valerie Crane)
Published Mar. 25, 2019
Updated Mar. 26, 2019

Fifty-six years after the sixth grade, Sister Helen Lange’s class wanted a little more time with their teacher. So in 2012, for their 50th high school reunion, they asked her to come, too.

Sister Helen was thrilled.

That night, one after another, the children she guided at Sarasota’s St. Martha Catholic School sat down at the round banquet table. She smiled and listened and asked about their lives. The boys had less hair on their heads, and the girls had grown taller than Sister Helen, who was then 98.

But the nun cherished by her former students hadn’t really changed all that much.

What was it about her? Valerie Crane asked a classmate, Guy Moore, Now, Crane thinks she knows.

“It was from her,” Crane said. “It was from within her. She was just easy, just an easy person to be around.”

Sister Helen died on March 18 at 105 of natural causes.

It is, certainly, a newsworthy accomplishment to live so long. But people who knew her valued the way she lived that life.

Left to right, Sister Irma, Sister Pauline and Sister Helen before they joined the Benedictine Sisters. The three women, and two other cousins, all left Texas together at 18 for Florida. They became known as "The Texas Five" and taught together throughout their lives. (Photo courtesy Faith Pridmore)

Sister Helen grew up on a Texas farm, one of eight in a devout Catholic family. Her brothers and sisters all played instruments, and when they were old enough, they formed a band. Sister Helen played the drums.

At 18, after graduating from high school, she and four cousins -- Irma, Pauline, Rosaria and Rosanna -- boarded a train to Florida to join the Benedictine Sisters. They became known as “The Texas Five.”

Sister Helen officially became a nun in 1935 and went on to do something that wasn’t the norm then - she got a good education. Then, for 44 years, she taught elementary school and music education.

After Sister Helen Lange retired, she worked as pastoral minister at Bon Secour Maria Manor nursing home in St. Petersburg and Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Ill. She also wrote a memoir, Kicking the Habit. (Photo courtesy Faith Pridmore)

Crane and Moore came to Sister Helen’s class for the sixth grade in 1956.

Wednesdays were the only days she thought her students got any real work done. On Thursdays and Fridays, they’d chatter about plans for sleepovers and get-togethers at the Youth Center. On Mondays and Tuesdays, they’d prattle on about what happened the weekend before.

“And she put up with all that silliness,” Crane said.

Some of the class were new to St. Martha that year. Others had been at the school since before they could spell. But all of them stood at the messy and daunting borders of childhood and adolescence.

Sister Helen handled it all with ease.

“You know when you go back and you think, ‘Who were my best teachers?’ ” said Moore, who now lives in Tallahassee. “She would be number one.”

Members of Sister Lange's sixth-grade class surround her during their class reunion. (Photo courtesy Faith Pridmore)

Crane, who now lives in Cedar Bluff, Ala., often stopped by the Dade City nursing home to see Sister Helen when passing through town. When she was 102, Sister Helen told her, “I keep waking up and seeing I’m still there, and I say: ‘Lord, why am I still here? You must not be finished with me yet. I must have something more to do for you.’ ’”

On a recent trip, Crane followed her former teacher down the hall of the nursing home as she went from person to person.

Well now, she’d say to one, did you see those tulips today?

Have you talked to your sister? she’d ask another.

Sister Helen wouldn’t give up until they’d raised their heads and responded. She’d make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, “and then she’d toodle on down to the next one.”

Tom Goldsworthy, now a deacon at St. Eugene in Edmond, Okla., used to stop by to see his former principal, Sister Irma, and got to know Sister Helen that way.

Goldsworthy has preached a few times about the example of The Texas Five. They made a commitment, he said, and they stuck to it.

“All of them did,” he said. “They were happy in what they were doing. They were happy to be serving God. You just don’t find that in life much anymore.”

Sister Helen Lange at 99. Even then, the nun continued to help with philanthropic causes despite being legally blind. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Want to know more about Sister Helen Lange? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem and see how one former student remembers her. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at epilogue@tampabay.com.

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