Helen M. McConnell

It was in the early 1970s that I first walked into St. Francis Country House. I was visiting a friend’s grandmother and I never realized that this visit was going to change the trajectory of my life.

I started to work as a nursing assistant. I had already committed to the archdiocese’s teaching program, attending St. Joseph’s College and teaching in an elementary school.

Once I realized that I was making sure the children were aware of the needs of the elderly and appreciative of the elders in our community, it was then on one of our field trips to St. Francis and supporting elder needs during the holidays that I knew my heart was yearning to share a more intimate relationship in geriatrics and more importantly the nursing profession.

Attending “Camilla Catholic School of Practical Nursing” to be a nurse was an immediate decision to further my career. In that year of studies sitting in the parking lot of Villa St. Joseph (shared with the nursing school) I had no idea that I would begin my journey and close my career in nursing on what I now view as sacred ground.

In my years working at St. Francis Country House my family grew and so did their needs. This motivated me to extend my horizons and stretch my 24 hours a day into other organizations such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, Chester Certified Nursing Assistant Program as a clinical instructor.

It was in the early 1980s that I was asked by the Sisters of Bon Secours to help out at Villa St. Joseph on the night shift. It was to be temporary, as I was already working two jobs. The Bon Secours Sisters were very influential in shaping my career at St. Francis and at the Villa.

My temporary stay has changed over the years from my position as an LPN, night relief nurse to an RN charge nurse, to director of nursing, to administrator and director of Priests Retirement Services.

After returning to more studies in nursing I completed my RN, my bachelor’s degree in organizational management and a master’s in pastoral counseling.

It has been an extraordinary journey, one that is laden with deep faith and belief in the God that I have come to know as the essence of my being, the breath I take, the steps I walk, the touch of kindness, the words that project me into a world to comfort with the skills that I have been blessed with, in spite of the many difficulties I’ve encountered shaping my vision along the way.

My work at the Villa and the service we are blessed to offer God’s chosen few has reaffirmed my journey and decision to remain at the Villa after Catholic Health Care Services contracted to take over management. My discernment has always offered me a greater horizon when I position myself next to God — a great space to occupy.

While supporting the changing conditions of the priests it was never just a physical experience; it ended up being a spiritual experience and a huge learning curve to open my perspectives to the understanding of a priest’s life. I came to appreciate it so much that those priests I was caring for had affected my career changes and my spiritual life.

Again, in the early 2000s I added yet another aspect of nursing to my day. I started working at a hospice organization that led me even closer to God’s kingdom. The pathway to eternal life is a journey but to be in the presence of the transcendence of the end of this human experience is extraordinary and reverential.

My more than 17 years at St. Francis gave me many opportunities to experience not just elder care but an organization that truly reflected the pastoral care through God’s eyes. My secret desire was to do a job in an administrative role that would reflect the best practice, communicated through the hearts of those entrusted to care for the residents.

The numerous people I have worked with in the archdiocese have mentored me, challenged me and respectfully given me the opportunity to grow. My hope was to reflect Christ in all we do and with all we meet.

I don’t think I’ve ever made a decision without discerning God’s influence and gentle guidance, showing me how much opportunity is available in listening to his word, reflecting on his signs, keeping my eyes wide open and noticing everything in life, every day, and ceasing that teaching moment. For this I am most grateful for these 46 years. I am truly blessed.

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McConnell is director of Priest Retirement Services for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and a 2019 recipient of the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (the Cross of Honor), a papal award for Catholics offering long and distinguished service to the church and the papal office, conferred Dec. 9 at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, Philadelphia.