April 2014

How a kindergarten teacher inspired a student

Helen Chiha has never forgotten her kindergarten teacher, Good Samaritan Sister, Colleen Leonard. Not only that, she says Colleen inspired her to become an early primary school teacher herself and to branch out into children’s book writing.

BY Debra Vermeer

When teacher, businesswoman and children’s book author, Helen Chiha, met Good Samaritan Sister, Colleen Leonard, last year for the first time in 40 years, she felt like she was five years old again.

Little wonder that being with Colleen transports Helen back across the years. Colleen, who was then known as Sister Mary John, or, to her students, simply Sister John, was Helen’s first teacher, in kindergarten at St Agatha’s Catholic Primary School, Pennant Hills in 1967.

The 23-year-old nun, dressed in the full habit of the time and bubbling with fun, compassion and laughter, had such an impact on young Helen that she has never forgotten her. Not only that, but she says Colleen inspired her to become an early primary school teacher herself and to branch out into children’s book writing.

“It’s true. When I’m with her, I feel like I’m five. It’s fantastic,” Helen says.

“I actually almost became a nun because of this woman. Everything she did I wanted to do and everything she was, I wanted to be. And then I found that God is in everything and everyone and I didn’t have to be in a convent.

“But she definitely inspired me to be a teacher of young children.”

Coming from a family of nine, Helen says she didn’t have much to do with books until she went to school. “Then when I got there, there was this nun and all of these fun things like books and crayons and painting. I loved it right from day one.”

Helen says that Colleen’s method of teaching was based on loving each individual child.

“She was fun and loving. This woman loved everything into you. And as a young child, that is something that stirs your heart and your spirit,” she says.

“The way she read a story made me want to read more books. That’s when I fell in love with books and I’ve been a big reader ever since.”

Helen recalls that Colleen would also care for her students outside the classroom.

“One day I forgot my lunch and, rather than send me to the tuck-shop with a bit of money, she took me over to the place where the nuns had their staff room and she made me a sandwich.”

“If ever you want to learn about love, then hang out with this woman.”

The two met up again some years later when Colleen, now out of the habit after the Second Vatican Council, and being addressed by her baptismal name, was a teacher at Mount St Benedict College, where Helen was in Year 8.

“I was walking along the corridor there and I saw this woman and I knew her immediately. I yelled out ‘Sister John!’,” Helen recalls. “And she recognised me too. The soul doesn’t forget.”

After that the pair lost contact again for many years. Helen went on to teach Kindergarten-Year 1 at Catholic schools in Sydney’s west, a job she says she loved. Later, she branched out into business with her brother, operating pizza shops. In 1988, Helen was hit by tragedy when the brother with whom she was in business died in a car accident.

“I really took it hard,” she says. “I spiralled down into 10 years of darkness and grief. I hated God for a good 10 years. I never let him go though. To be honest, I didn’t know it could be that dark.”

During her years of recovery from that terrible blow, Helen undertook a number of personal development courses and it was there that she discovered her desire to write children’s books.

“I discovered the inner child,” she says. “And I found that the inner child wanted to play and when it wanted to play, it wanted to write.”

Having never married, but with 31 nieces and nephews, Helen says she found writing for children came easily.

“It’s like having a conversation with the children,” she says. “And when you get inspired, you know what the child is going to sing to you.”

She started writing in 2003 and before long had written 30 books, but it wasn’t until 10 years later, in 2013, that Helen published her first title, called Mirror, Mirror, a fun story about the beauty of the inner person. She now has two more ready to publish.

Around the time that she was writing the books, Helen started to think again of her Kindergarten teacher, Sister John.

She made a few attempts to track her down, but had no luck until last year when she approached the Sisters of the Good Samaritan and, with permission, they gave her Colleen’s phone number. After an initial phone call, the two met up in Sydney and later in Melbourne, where Colleen is now living.

“I feel like part of me has been looking for this woman all my life,” Helen says. “It was unbelievable to meet her again and she was just the same as ever.

“We chatted and laughed and I thanked her for all she’d done for me. I mean, it was from her that I really learnt to play, to learn and to read. But more than that: This woman made God real for me, and gifts don’t come much bigger than that.”

For Colleen, having one of her first students contact her out of the blue was both a surprise and a great thrill.

“It was a lovely feeling, because she was so excited on the phone, so bubbly and so happy to find me. It was delightful really. I thought how lovely is that? I remember getting off the phone and smiling and thinking ‘gosh, what a nice thing to be told that someone has been looking for you all those years’. I was actually very moved by it.”

Colleen, who entered the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in 1963, says that she was still completing her teacher training when she first met Helen.

“But I remember that I did love that class. They were beautiful children and I know I loved them. I still remember them and wonder what happened to them all,” she says.

Colleen says that when Helen rang her, she recalled straight away the little girl she had taught at St Agatha’s.

“We went out for lunch. And as we were having lunch, I remembered her so clearly,” she says.

“She was the dearest little girl. She had this beautiful smile and these big lovely eyes and pretty hair. She was like a little doll and she used to follow me around everywhere. That’s how I remembered her when I met this much older woman. And as she was talking, I could see it, and I could feel the love, I suppose. I’ve always loved little children. I come from a loving family myself, of 10 and so it seemed natural for me to be loving given I was so loved. I really did enjoy that year – it is etched in my memory.”

After she finished teacher training, Colleen taught at St Bernadette’s Catholic Primary School, Dundas for two years before being appointed as principal to St Benedict’s Business College in Sydney.

“Those years were among my happiest and to this day many of the students still retain contact with me which is so special for me,” she says.

It was after that time at St Benedict’s Business College that she taught at Mount St Benedict’s, followed by a period at St Scholastica’s, Glebe. Three years study at Yarra Theological Union followed, and then she became one of the founding leaders of Cardijn Secondary College in Adelaide. She enjoyed a period of overseas study followed by some years working in parish ministry, and later as a member of the staff at Heart of Life Spirituality Centre in Melbourne.  Colleen also served in various leadership capacities within the Sisters of the Good Samaritan over the years.

After a life-threatening illness Colleen took a year out of active ministry to undertake treatment before embarking on her current work at Campion Spirituality Centre in Kew where she is on the faculty, leads retreats and works in spiritual direction. Beyond this involvement she facilitates workshops and retreats in various places.

“I love my ministry in spiritual direction. It is a beautiful ministry which I experience as both a privilege and rich blessing,” she says.

Colleen says she also considers her visits to asylum seekers and refugees at the immigration detention centre at Broadmeadows as an important priority where she has developed cherished friendships with those among the most powerless in our country. Added to her commitments, Colleen co-ordinates the Good Samaritan Oblates in Victoria.

“I suppose I have a lot of energy and I’ve had opportunities for rich experiences for which I am most grateful to my congregation. I do have a variety of lovely connections that energise me for life and mission.”

Colleen says Helen is one of those special connections.

“Helen is such a lovely memory and such a joy for me. And she represents very happy memories. It was my first year out in teaching and I suppose I was young, I was playful and at that level you can be very creative with them and enjoy a colourful, fun environment for learning,” she says.

“You don’t think of that at the time. I suppose when you get to my age you look back and hope you have made a difference. Then little Helen comes along and that’s a good feeling, that I’ve been able to be there for others in that way. I just thank God for such opportunities.”

Colleen says she was delighted to receive from Helen a copy of her book, Mirror, Mirror, which is soon to be officially launched.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” she says. “And its focus on the inner child, is just so Helen. The book reflects the inner beauty that I saw in little Helen all those years ago and see now in who she has become.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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