Sister Helen

Recovering Alcoholic Used Her Own Experience To Counsel And Inspire Others To Overcome Their Addictions

July 09, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Sister Helen Fish, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and a licensed addictions counselor who as a recovering alcoholic used her own addiction to help inspire others to regain their lives, died of pneumonia June 19 at St. Joseph Medical Center.

Sister Helen was 76.

She was born Helen May Fish in Baltimore and raised in Govans. She attended the Institute of Notre Dame and then worked briefly as a clerk for Penn Lumber Co. before entering the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1953.

She later attended night school at City College, where she earned her high school diploma.

Sister Helen later earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Notre Dame College of Maryland in 1962 and a master's degree in education from Loyola College in 1971.

After she professed her final vows in 1961, she took the religious name of Sister Mary Paulina, and later in life returned to her birth name.

Sister Helen began her career as a primary teacher at St. Mary Parochial School in Hagerstown in 1956.

She later held teaching assignments at St. Jane Frances de Chantal in Pasadena, St. Patrick in Mount Savage and St. Mary of the Assumption in Govans.

From 1972 to 1976, she taught reading at Archbishop Keough High School, and she was director of the reading program at Cecil County Community College.

She was administrator of adult education at the Woodstock Job Center in Woodstock from 1976 to 1981, and during these years, she also tutored at Villa Assumpta, her order's retirement home in the Woodbrook section of Baltimore County, and was a pastoral minister at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Washington.

Sister Helen was a remedial reading instructor at St. Anthony Parochial School in Gardenville from 1981 to 1986.

Sister Helen's second career as an addictions counselor grew out of her own addiction to alcohol in the 1970s.

Her sister, Mary Lou Fish, who lives in Baltimore, said Sister Helen had the ability to "turn any misfortune into a positive thing."

She joined Alcoholics Anonymous and by 1986 had become a licensed addictions counselor, and began helping patients through the 12-step retreats and workshops that she organized.

Sister Helen worked as a counselor at the Baltimore County Health Department, Harbel Alcohol Services, Catholic Charities, Charles W. Hickey School, and was program director at Chrysalis House II at Crownsville Hospital Center.

"She found her real life's work reaching out to those who suffered from alcoholism. She knew what they were going through. Her idea was to get into the program and live it," said Sister Joan Gluth, a retired chemistry teacher who had taught for many years at Notre Dame Preparatory School. "She touched and changed hundreds of lives."

Sister Joan said her longtime friend also injected her outgoing personality and her irrepressible sense of humor into her work and made light of the difficulties.

"She was a great talker but also a wonderful listener. No matter where we went, she had to stop and talk to people or tell them a joke. That's why she was always late," Sister Joan said.

When the two joined a health club, Sister Joan said the only thing Sister Helen exercised was "her jaw."

Sister Helen refused to let pain from a hip that had been operated on three times slow her down, as she made her way with a cane.

Sister Joan said she made self-deprecating jokes about being a "bionic woman."

Sister Helen, who was a consultant and clinical supervisor at Tuerk House in West Baltimore, continued working until a month before her death.

"What a wonderful lady. She always had a joke and could make the best out of any situation," said Elliott Driscoll, executive director of Tuerk House.

"Sister Helen worked with all sorts of addicted people and worked hard helping them to get better. She made them understand that it was a disease and not moral failure," he said.

"She was a counselor, clinical supervisor to the staff and an advocate for the clients," Mr. Driscoll said. "She'd even help them find work because she knew it would make them feel better."

He said Sister Helen always left the patients with her favorite piece of wisdom: "Be good to yourself."

Her other favorite benediction was from You Are Sent, written by her order's founder, Sister Mary Theresa of Jesus: "We are all in a lifelong process of development, of being and yet becoming."

Sister Helen, who lived at her order's motherhouse, enjoyed taking Communion to shut-ins, and decorating the health center with poinsettias and lilies in memory of her mother and father.

Sister Helen's favorite pastimes were playing cards and visiting Atlantic City casinos.

"She'd call them her 'days of retreat,' or 'I'm going on retreat today," Miss Fish said.

"Since her death, my phone has been ringing with calls from people who wanted to tell me how she helped them save their lives," she said.

"The two most important things in her life were the School Sisters of Notre Dame and the recovery community," she said.

A funeral Mass was offered June 24.

Also surviving are two brothers, John Fish of Round Bay and James Fish of New Bern, N.C.; and several nieces and nephews.

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