Sister Helene O’Sullivan

“Mission for me is making known the God of love and the love of God.”

hosullivan_lgIn March of 2007, Sister Helene O’Sullivan attended the UN meeting in N.Y. on The Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination and Violence against the Girl Child. She shared the lives of trafficked women whom she knows in Cambodia where she has been living since 2004. Trafficking is an enormous problem in South Asia where a number of poorer countries like Cambodia suffer from both external and internal trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation. Sister Helene was project manager for the Reintegration of Trafficked Women’s Project at Hagar, an NGO.

Presently Sister Helene works at another shelter, Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center. She works on vocational training for the trafficked women as well as survivors of rape and domestic violence. Sister Helene also helps to find markets for their products so that they can earn more to support themselves and their families after they leave the shelter. Eighty percent of the trafficking survivors cannot go back to their families so must start a new life for themselves in Phnom Penh.

Sister Helene has also been doing networking with different NGOs working to combat trafficking to do advocacy together. She was invited to talk to law enforcement personnel from all over Asia at the International Law Enforcement Academy in Bangkok and to the Dominican Family Justice and Peace Promoters in Taiwan.

Born in New York City, Sister Helene entered the Maryknoll Sisters in 1962 after two years of study at Mt. St. Vincent College, NY. She received her B.S.E. from Mary Rogers College, an M.A. in Adult Education and an M.Ed. with a specialization in Justice and Peace, both from Columbia University, NY. She also studied Community Development at Coady International Institute in Nova Scotia.

Sister Helene was assigned to Hong Kong in 1967 and she studied the Cantonese language. She taught senior high school and college students, teachers in training and did pastoral work with the poor in the slums. Sister Helene joined a group of women engaged in outreach ministry to the “vulnerable poor” of the commercial sex industry. Action for Reachout warmly welcomed these women in a storefront whether they were addicted to drugs, struggling to quit or arrested and back again for help. Through hours on the streets and waiting for a judge to hear the women’s cases, Sister Helene heard the stories of lovable women who didn’t start out on the streets, but ended up there.

In contrast to the poor in the slums who could openly organize themselves, Sister Helene was startled to learn that the women who worked on the streets couldn’t protect themselves from harsh police treatment and were almost totally vulnerable to organized crime and the system that treated them as throwaway people. The staff and volunteers at Action for Reachout helped these marginalized women to recognize their own human dignity. Sister Helene found that helping the women to create options was one of the most important things she could do in working with them saying, “Creating options together brings hope, and hope heralds the coming of the reign of God.”

Sister Helene was co-founder of the Hong Kong Center for the Progress of Peoples, a research and action center for social issues.

In 1980, she served as Director of the Maryknoll Sisters Office of Social Concerns at Maryknoll, NY. When Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford were killed in El Salvador that year, Sister Helene was asked to monitor the investigation into their deaths. In May, 1984, she went to El Salvador to represent the congregation at the trial of the five national guardsmen accused and found guilty of the murders. One of her former Hong Kong students recalled, “What Sister Helene focused on was not so much sadness about the loss of friends as a sense that this experience was central in the faithfulness of the Maryknoll community.”

Sent to Rome in 1986, Sister Helene served as Associate Director of SEDOS, a research agency set up as a resource center for missionary and evangelization efforts of international congregations of religious men and women. While there, Sister Helene was a member of the Justice and Peace Commission of the International Union of Superiors General and also served on the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. After this global service in Rome, Sister Helene returned to her beloved Hong Kong.

At the 14th General Assembly of the Maryknoll Sisters in 1997, Sister Helene was elected President of the Maryknoll Sisters Congregation. Sister Helene’s interest in global issues of justice and peace and her life experiences in mission in Asia, Europe and America blessed her leadership for the following six years and also prepared her for Cambodia where she continues “to make known the God of love.”