SAN ANTONIO — The five teenage girls were warned to stay calm as they left the station.
"Not a tear was to be shed," warned a stern Sister Rita, mentor of the girls who were leaving family, friends and all they held dear that day in 1930. The entire parish turned out to see off the nuns in training as they left Texas for Florida to join the Order of the Benedictines.
As soon as the train wheels started to turn, homesickness hit.
"Dear God, what have we gotten ourselves into?" said 16-year-old Helen Lange. She burst into sobs.
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That tearful departure marked the beginning of a career in education that spanned 44 years for the now 99-year-old woman who became known as Sister Helen. She was part of the group known as the Texas Five who taught in Catholic schools across Florida, including the Holy Name Academy in St. Leo.
Sister Helen trained in elementary and music education. She taught and served as school principal in New Orleans, Ocala, Jacksonville Beach, North Miami, Venice and Sarasota.
Growing up, Sister Helen wanted to study piano or pursue a career in nursing.
But her parents lacked the money.
"We were poor," said Sister Helen, the third of eight children.
Options at the time were limited for women, most of whom became wives and mothers. Only a decade had passed since they were even allowed to vote. A monastic life offered Catholic women the chance to pursue higher education and careers.
During her service to the Roman Catholic Church, Sister Helen also studied at Loyola University, Our Lady of the Lake, Barry University, Mount St. Scholastic and the Catholic University of America. After retiring from the classroom, she studied gerontology. That led to positions as director of volunteers and pastoral ministry at Bon Secours Maria Manor in St. Petersburg, as well as home health care.
At the Holy Name Monastery in St. Leo, she has volunteered for the Elder Hostel program and also for Hernando Pasco Hospice.
"I've known her it seems like my whole life," said Margaret Beaumont, who learned to play a plastic flute in Sister Helen's elementary music class, and whose 7-year-old grandson loves visiting the nun. "She's a caring person. She makes you feel special."
Sister Helen said her time in education left her with fond memories.
"I loved the sixth-grade boys," she said, adding that she enjoyed their energy and fun-loving spirit.
One spring day, she arrived in class to find her desk and chair had disappeared. At first, she was puzzled, but a quick glance at the calendar told her all she needed to know.
Without missing a beat, she gave the day's instructions.
"I said, 'I'm not going to work today, but you are,' " and assigned a heavy workload with a 2 p.m. deadline.
"It was April Fool's," she recalled with a smile.
She said the key to working with students is simple: "You've got to trust the kids and teach them to trust you."
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Sister Helen turns 100 on Saturday.
Last week, the San Antonio Leading Ladies group, which she has belonged to for years, celebrated with a luncheon at the St. Charles Inn, a two-story bed and breakfast that began operating in 1913, the same year Sister Helen was born.
As she enjoyed a slice of her cross-shaped birthday cake decorated with pink and purple flowers, she reflected on a long life spent helping others. She sometimes balances herself on a walker and has lost much of her eyesight, but is otherwise healthy. She lived at the Holy Name Monastery until a few years ago, when she moved to Heritage Park Health and Rehabilitation center in Dade City, where she often talks and prays with other residents.
"I've never been on a diet," she said. "I do eat sparingly." She also exercised regularly.
But the real key to a successful long life, she said, is a positive attitude.
"You've got to love people," she said. "And love God."