Funeral Reflection for Sister Helen Kyllingstad

Today we gather to celebrate and give thanks to God for gifting us with Sister Helen for 96 years, 66 of those years as a Benedictine Sister. We remember her with much love and gratitude. She was remarkably faithful as a Benedictine. Sister Helen dedicated her life to God through the monastic way of life and gave it everything she could.

The story of the good shepherd we heard from John’s gospel offers a good image for Sister Helen’s life. Sister Helen had a deep-seated desire to be of service to others. It was through this faith that she was able to follow through in the many ways that she was called to serve. Her expansive career in health care includes public health nursing, serving as an O.B. night supervisor, and a nursing director. She helped plan and develop a hospital in Bowman, and worked as an anesthetist and hospital administrator in Beulah and Richardton. Sister Helen started the Central North Dakota School for Nurse Anesthetists at St. Alexius Medical Center, which she ran for two years. Her willingness to become active on numerous boards and councils during her career proclaims her dedication to serve when a need presented itself. She cared for people and stood by them in their hour of greatest need.

Her capable hands delivered and cared for the most fragile of infants, carried the most critical of patients and delivered health-related services that were challenging and innovative. A glimpse into her brilliant mind, leadership and courage is chronicled in the book, “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives: The Story of Nurses.” The book shares the life experiences of nurses and their commitment to healing through the processes of life and death, joy and suffering.

Sister Helen was truly a pioneer in healthcare. For me it is hard to imagine what it was like years ago to care for patients with limited, and at times, inadequate resources.

For example, this is one of the excerpts from Sister Helen’s experience as administrator of a hospital in Beulah:

“The operating room of the three-story converted hotel was on the upper floor. With no elevator and stairs so steep a patient couldn’t be carried on a stretcher, staff sat patients on chairs and carried them up and down the steps. I once carried a fully anesthetized 110-pound patient down the stairs because we didn’t have another bed on that floor.”

Even as Sister Helen faced increasing physical challenges in her later years, she desired to serve. She did so while faithfully working at the monastery switchboard. She extended true Benedictine hospitality in this ministry. She crafted beautiful handmade wallpaper greeting cards. Each unique card was sewn around the edges with intricate stitching. It made her happy to know her cards were being sent around the world. We will miss those cards when we have used the last of them.

To say Sister Helen had a sharp mind would be an understatement. She was a master at crossword puzzles and she did them with an ink pen. She often chuckled over the interesting hints that led her to find the perfect word. This often sparked lively conversation at the dinner table. She found it fascinating to learn new and interesting tidbits of information through these word puzzles.

Sister Helen was a gift to those who were blessed to know her. She kept in contact with relatives in Norway. It was important to her to pray for their needs and share a bit about her life as a Benedictine Sister of Annunciation Monastery with them. And she shared with us her Norwegian heritage. One way she did this was by displaying the flag of Norway on its Independence Day, May 17th. And she enjoyed sharing lefse with us, a Scandinavian treat that she loved.

Ever faithful to prayer, she prayed for the needs of the world and her monastic community. Her conversations with God were filled with joy and curiosity. She journaled about these conversations when she was outdoors, questioning God about the weather, the grasses, the wildlife. In her entries, she also included God’s response to her. She called these conversations, “P.S. God.” Sister Helen showed us that it’s OK to question God, to express disappointment at times, but in everything, she modeled a life of gratitude and praise to God. She trusted that God would bring the necessary rains, that times of drought would be followed by times of great harvest, that blessing would flow after the flooding of the Missouri River. She believed, even in her own decline in health, that her life dedicated to God was rich beyond measure.

Sister Helen could feel God’s presence as she enjoyed the beauty of the outdoors. There was a day when Sister Helen taught us to appreciate the ever-present wind on this hilltop. While most complained about its persistence, she would say, “Isn’t it wonderful? I like it.” Perhaps in her wanderings, she heard God’s voice in that wind. She didn’t allow it to be a bother, but rather, considered it a gift.

Sister Helen had a great appreciation for the wild prairie grasses. She listened patiently as they rustled in the breeze. She saw beauty in their ruggedness and determination. Sister Helen identified many varieties of grasses on the monastery grounds. From her electric scooter, she collected a variety of grasses, and turned them into natural, artistic arrangements. You see, Sister Helen saw beauty in their rugged determination to thrive, even in the harshest conditions. She had that same sort of determination.

And, I hope we never take for granted the birdsongs Sister Helen listened to so keenly. She delighted in the way the birds would light upon her windowsill as she gently whistled to them. She enjoyed watching the tentative wanderings of the deer close by and the wild turkeys that huddled alongside the monastery.

At the age of 96, Sister Helen patiently waited for God to call her home. Although she did not always understand why she had to endure the physical pain of her older years, she was accepting of God’s plan for her, no matter what the circumstance. Sister Helen had that childlike wonder. To marvel. To awe. To believe. To trust. To see all as a reflection of God’s perfect love. It is a rare gift.

Sister Helen, we love you and will miss your faithful presence here with us. But we are also joyful that you are relishing new life with God – a life free from suffering and full of joy. We rejoice and give thanks that you have been a part of our lives. You will live on in our hearts and memories forever.

~ Sister Nancy Miller, OSB, Prioress of Annunciation Monastery
August 14, 2013


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