Sister Helen (M. Marice) Strohman
From the tribute to Sister Helen read at her funeral vigil.
Imagine the surprise when CHM residents at Humility of Mary Center learned that Sr. Helen Strohman had died just minutes before the 3 p.m. Good Friday service began on April 7, 2023. What better way could there be to celebrate Easter? But here we are, not wishing her back but missing her humor, her smart remarks, and her unique friendship with family, CHMs, and friends near and far. So we remember and celebrate the life of Sister Helen Strohman.
Helen Anne Strohman was born on December 13, 1932, to Leo and Mary Agnes Dunn Strohman in Keswick, Iowa. The Strohman children knew the CHMs from summer religion schools and the girls went to Ottumwa Heights Academy for high school.
In January 1952 Helen entered the Congregation of the Humility of Mary. She had been a student at Ottumwa Heights College so she moved from the student side of the building to the novitiate. She received the habit and her name in religion, Sister Mary Maurice, that summer. Sr. Maurice professed her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in July 1954, and made final vows in 1957. Sr. Regina Mary Cratty is the one surviving member of that class. Following Vatican II, Sr. Maurice returned to her baptismal name, Helen.
While in the novitiate, Sr. Helen completed the Associate of Arts degree at Ottumwa Heights College. Like many of her peers, she spent summers on the Marycrest College campus in Davenport, while teaching during the school year at schools in Iowa and Minnesota. Sr. Helen received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Elementary Education from Marycrest in 1967.
Sr. Helen taught in the dioceses of Davenport, Des Moines and Dubuque in Iowa, St. Paul-Minneapolis in Minnesota, and Jackson in Mississippi. She taught primary grades from1960 to 1964 years at St. Mary’s in Marshalltown, and returned there for three more years from 1967 to 1970. Word is that Fr. Jake Roth invited her and Sr. JoAnne Talarico, who was also in Marshalltown, to join him at St. Donatus, Iowa. Sr. Helen taught middle school grades with the Dubuque Franciscans there. Sr. Catherine Burns had a few months there between other destinations. She remembers the unique setting of the Stations of the Cross on the climb to the top of a steep hill behind the church and school.
In 1978 Sr. Helen returned to the Des Moines diocese and was a substitute teacher and tutor at Christ the King and Holy Trinity parishes until 1986. She and Sr. Catherine Talarico learned about “vision therapy” there from the parents of a child they tutored. They learned that some students’ visual problems were caused by irregularities not determined by the usual visual tests. They convinced the Congregation to purchase a machine that could identify some of these problems. The children were then referred to optometrists for corrective treatment.
In 1983 Sr. Helen became the first director of the congregation’s Seeds of Hope Volunteer Program that was to continue for almost thirty (30) years. This program provided opportunities for CHM sisters to seek lay or religious volunteers to work with them in their ministries. These opportunities were also places where CHMs and associates, themselves, could explore possible new ministries in which to serve.
In 1986 Sr. Helen went to Camden, in the diocese of Jackson, Mississippi. This was the area where CHM sisters and Ottumwa Heights students had volunteered during summers in the 1950s, when they tutored African-American children. She taught third grade for four years at Sacred Heart School there. Sr. Helen then returned to Iowa where she took care of her mother in North English, Iowa, and in Peoria, Illinois. While in North English, she was pastoral minister at St. Joseph Church.
Upon her return to Mississippi, she joined Sisters Bernadine Pieper and Ruth Morris in founding the Rainbow Literacy Center in Canton in 1994. Their goal was to assist adults, including non-English speakers, to read and write in order to meet GED requirements. With that certificate in hand, men and women had more employment opportunities, as well as the foundation to improve basic skills and/or acquire new ones. BVM Sr. Janita Curoe had established the Madison County Mississippi GED and Adult Basic Education program in the county jail in 1991. It was an extension of the local Holmes Community College. Srs. Bernadine and Helen worked with the offenders, many of whom succeeded in obtaining their GED. The sheriff described their work as “an important step in the rehabilitative process”. He also attributed the reduction in recidivism, or individuals returning to criminal behavior after release, to that program.
Associate Rosemary Hendricks and her husband, Ralph, volunteered with the sisters in Canton in the ‘90s. Rosemary said Sr. Helen “was so gracious and welcoming – true to the CHM charism”. Because the sisters’ place was full, she and Ralph stayed with “Bob”, such “a friendly, generous man who…did whatever he could for the mission.” They taught English as a second language to the offenders who were “grateful for the outside contact.” They also worked at the thrift store where people could get items that had been donated. Rosemary said, “Sr. Helen’s being was immersed with the people….This was her Mission.”
Associates Evalee Mickey and Sue Witte volunteered with the sisters under the Seeds of Hope program in Canton in 1998. Both were experienced teachers; they tutored students in reading at Holy Child Jesus School. At the time Sr. Helen was also doing GED work at a “release facility” associated with the jail. Evalee recently shared her precious scrapbook with the community and the archives. In it were pictures from the period when she had gone to Mississippi as a student in the ‘50s and, again, as a Seeds of Hope volunteer in 1998.
The Humility sisters worked with the BVMs from Dubuque and Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration from Eau Clare, WI, in the Mississippi missions. They had a practice of sharing a meal at the Franciscan sisters’ convent in Camden on alternate Sundays, and became good friends with them. One of the Franciscans, now deceased, Sr. Thea Bowman has been declared “a Servant of God” by the Catholic Church, a first stage in possible canonization. The process was initiated by the Diocese of Jackson. Sr. Thea had permission to live with, and care for her aged parents in Canton, as she was their only child. Sr. Thea became very popular for her beautiful voice, and for promoting African-American religious heritage through talks and singing. Sr. Helen remembered her as very energetic, a friend to everyone, who died at a young age from cancer. Sr. Helen recalled that Sr. Thea was attentive to people, wanting to be sure their basic needs were met. In fact, of all things, Sr. Thea had given Helen a waste can! Sr. Helen attended regional meetings with Humilities who lived east of the Mississippi River in Somerset, KY, Biloxi, MS, and Atlanta, GA. She hosted at least one meeting in Canton as well. In 2003 she became director of the Sacred Heart Hispanic Outreach in Canton when immigrants were being hired to work in new auto factories there. She also helped immigrant women, especially, by training them in housekeeping so they could work in private homes and institutions.
Despite declining health, Sr. Helen remained in Canton until late in 2022 when she returned to Humility of Mary Center in Davenport. It was just in time to celebrate her 90th birthday on December 13 with a party. She continued to keep in touch, by phone especially, with family and friends, and enjoyed visits from them as well. Sr. Helen participated in community exercises and Mass, in person and remotely, until Good Friday afternoon, April 7, when she died minutes before the community service began at 3 p.m. What a way to celebrate Easter!
Sister Mary Rehmann, CHM