SAN ANTONIO — Sister Helen Lange credits her longevity to having fun in life.
“Keep a good outlook on life and look forward to what’s next, that’s my philosophy. Have fun with it, that’s what I do,” Lange said.
She said she likes to interact and joke with people she does not know. “If I can get a smile on their faces — that’s a good reward for me,” she said.
She “never once” thought she would live to be 100 years old, she said. Lange celebrated 80 years of ministry in April 2012. Her ministry began in 1930 when she and four cousins from Rowena, Texas, came to Holy Name Monastery in San Antonio to join the Benedictine Sisters of Florida.
Last week, Lange and some of her friends celebrated with an early birthday luncheon at St. Charles Bed And Breakfast in San Antonio. The Leading Ladies Club organized the luncheon in her honor. She will reach 100 years old on Saturday.
Sister Helen is still sharp, still witty, can still blow a mean party horn. She clasped her hands over her mouth as her friends sang “Happy Birthday.”
“I just want to say thank you. I’ll go back home, I’ll go to my room, shut the door and give a good cry,” Lange said.
For years Lange lived at the Holy Name Monastery, but now she resides in Heritage Park Health and Rehabilitation. Lange recalled her days living at the monastery fondly but is saddened by changes taking place.
For decades, the 60,000-square-foot building served as a girls’ boarding school and later a college dorm. Saint Leo University recently purchased the priory and chapel of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida, and the sisters plan to build a smaller monastery nearby on a 10-acre tract across S.R. 52.
The former convent is going to be used by the university for dorms.
“Things are changing,” she said. “I think we just have to go with the flow.”
In a biography of Lange written by Faith M. Pridmore, director of advancement at Holy Name Monastery, Pridmore wrote that when Lange and her cousins boarded a train in Texas, “friends and family as well as the entire parish turned-out for their departure.”
“With stern instructions from Sister Rita, their mentor, that ‘not a tear was to be shed,’ they boarded the train. As the train began to move, Lange said, ‘Dear God, what have we gotten ourselves into?’ And the tears began to flow.”
“It wasn’t too long after their arrival the cousins, Sisters Helen Lange, Pauline Block, Irma Multer, and Rosaria and Rosanna Matthiesen, came to be known as the Texas Five- women of true grit,” wrote Pridmore. Today, Block also lives at Heritage Park; they are the only two sisters left of the five cousins.
Initially, the sisters taught locally at The Holy Name Academy for girls and the St. Benedict Preparatory School for boys.
Lange was trained in elementary and music education. Over the years, she would travel from her home at Holy Name to serve in classrooms and as school principal in New Orleans, Ocala, Jacksonville Beach, North Miami, Venice, Saint Leo and Sarasota
“During her 44 years as an educator,” Pridmore said, “Sister Helen found inspiration for her students through experiences with music, drama, musical theatre and band instruction. Throughout those years, Sister continued to hone her talents and skills in studies at Loyola University, Our Lady of the Lake, Barry University, Mount St. Scholastic and the Catholic University of America.”
At the luncheon, Lange thanked her friends for their support through the years. “You people have been so faithful to the sisters, and I want to thank you in the name of the sisters.”
As she looked around the room, she said: “I love these ladies and had some of their kids in school.”
Ann Grieshop, a lifelong resident of San Antonio, was taught by Lange when she was a boarder at Holy Name Academy in St. Leo. She remembers her fondly.
“She was a little stern — not too much — but very fair,” she chuckled. The academy ceased operations in 1964.
When she retired from teaching, Lange took studies in gerontology and became director of volunteers and pastoral ministry at Bon Secour Maria Manor in St. Petersburg. Lange has also volunteered in the Elder Hostel program at the monastery and the Pasco/Hernando Hospice Center. Even today, she ministers at Heritage Park.
“It is a privilege and honor when residents and nursing staff ask me to pray with them,” she said.