"Life teaches us, gives us opportunities to develop ourselves and to be of value for other people and our country.” “I think the whole thing is just being open as we go through life. It won’t all happen the way you’re planning, but enjoy that too. Work with it and try something that you never dreamed you’d do. It just might be interesting."
Sister Helen Hengel is a truly caring Albertan who has shared her tremendous spirit, compassion and skill as a counsellor with those struggling to conquer addictions as well as with people from all walks of life needing assistance or seeking positive change in their lives.
Helen Hengel was born in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan on August 27, 1923 and grew up in a family that reflected the pioneering spirit common to many of western Canada’s early homesteading farm families. Helen and her two sisters learned the principles of hard work, patience and perseverance from their parents, Anthony and Kathleen Hengel. They also benefitted from living in a home where they were encouraged to be voracious readers, to value education and to follow their life’s passions and ambitions.
Helen’s passion for learning and teaching emerged early in life. The lessons she eagerly absorbed in the one-room country school she attended were replayed at home on a small blackboard, with Helen as the teacher and her sisters serving as patient test pupils. Her parents’ focus on education prompted them to send Helen to a private boarding school in Swift Current for high school, despite the extreme financial limitations brought on by the Great Depression. At that school, run by the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis, Helen came to realize that her life’s calling would encompass more than her passion for teaching. She began delving into her own spirituality and eventually saw that joining the religious Order and serving people through her faith was to be her true path in life.
In 1939, Helen moved to Quebec to complete two and a half years of training to become a Sister of Charity of St. Louis and master the French language. She then returned to Saskatchewan to attend teachers’ college in Moose Jaw. By 1943, Sister Helen was back in Swift Current teaching elementary classes at the school that had inspired her career choice and, over the next five years, she taught elementary and junior high classes in Swift Current and Radville, Saskatchewan. In 1948, she moved to Medicine Hat, Alberta where she taught high school, took on new challenges as a school principal and served as a mentor to young women through her work as Directress of the Novitiate.
During her years teaching in Medicine Hat, Helen also embarked on what would become a lifelong commitment to continuing education. By 1955, she had earned a Bachelor of Education Degree in History and Languages and then, in 1964, took a sabbatical year for theology studies at Regina Mundi College in Rome. She arrived in Italy during an exciting period of growth and change for the Catholic Church and returned to Canada with a strengthened desire to minister to those in need. Sister Helen decided to take her skills as a teacher and mentor in a new direction and began graduate studies in Counselling Psychology at the University of Calgary. She worked as a part-time student counsellor during the University’s summer sessions before taking on full-time duties in 1969. A year later, Helen obtained a Masters Degree in Education with a specialization in Counselling. By 1972, she had gained Alberta certification as a psychologist.
While Helen was expanding her skills as a counsellor at the U of C she also worked to serve the greater community. She joined the team at the Mount St. Francis Retreat Centre in Cochrane and co-founded a National Marriage Encounter program for Calgary to help people seeking to enrich their spiritual lives and build stronger, more meaningful relationships.
After 11 years counselling at the U of C, Helen came to realize that there was important work to be done helping people suffering from addictions. In 1978, she moved to Minnesota for a year’s training at the Hazelden Chemical Dependency Treatment Centre. By 1980, she was ready to offer her counselling services to the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC) and dove into the new challenge of working with addicts and their families. She also served as leader of the Serenity Retreats Association in Calgary where she worked with people in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, guiding those wishing to explore the spiritual elements of their recovery. Helen further served the community as a co-founder of an Emotions Anonymous Chapter in Calgary and a professional support group for addictions counsellors. In 1987, Sister Helen entered private practice as a Certified Psychologist and continued to guide addicts through the recovery process.
Over the course of her career as a counsellor and psychologist, Helen Hengel has touched the lives of thousands of recovering addicts and their families from across Alberta. Through retreats, workshops, seminars and one-on-one counselling sessions, she has helped people to find the hope, strength and faith they needed to heal and has developed a well-deserved reputation as an open-minded mentor and clinician who willingly embraces all faiths and ways of life. Her remarkable compassion, caring spirit and patience, combined with her strengths as a counsellor, have encouraged many people to change their lives for the better.
In 2003, a tragic turn of events forced Helen to apply her strength and spirit to a recovery of her own. It was Easter Day and Helen and four of her fellow Sisters had planned to take a drive in the country before stopping for dinner in Bragg Creek, just west of Calgary. While they were stopped at a light, a truck struck their vehicle killing everyone but Helen. She faced a long recovery from her physical injuries and an even longer recovery from the loss of her dear friends and colleagues. Helen’s tenacity, her faith and the unyielding support of her Order allowed her to regain her strength and return to her work serving people in need until her retirement from private practice. Over the years, her work has been recognized with the Calgary YWCA Woman Educator of the Year and a special award for her service to the Serenity Retreat Association.
If you ask Helen to provide her definition of a good day she offers one that also encapsulates her record of service to others. She simply strives to make each day “one in which there is a peaceful attitude towards what’s happening, in which there is some laughter and good-heartedness and in which I have the ability to do something worthwhile for somebody.”