Many of us talk a lot about what needs to happen. Sister Helene Lentz had no patience for that. She simply got the things done.
One example: At a meeting in 2000 when Sister Helene was head of the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Catholic Diocese of Wichita was discussing starting the Lord’s Diner, “we were saying, ‘What do what we need to make this happen?’ ” said Monsignor Robert Hemberger, vicar general of the diocese. “And Sister Helene jumped up and said, ‘We’ll take care of the first year of the food.’ … It really gave it a sense that this is of God, when this kind of generosity leaps forth.”
Another example: Sister Helene knew that people with cancer needed more than medical help. So she recently developed a program where they could find spiritual strength.
Two weeks after the first program of the Spiritual Strengths Cancer Care Center started in August, Sister Helene herself was diagnosed with cancer. It turned out to be aggressive, and she died Dec. 22 at age 64. Visitation will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at the Wichita Center of the Congregation of St. Joseph at 3700 E. Lincoln. A wake service will be at 7 p.m. today, and her funeral will be at 1 p.m. Friday, both at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Andover.
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The former hospital administrator and leader of her congregation of sisters was influential in many things, such as the development of Via Christi Health System and the sexual-assault response team there, Dear Neighbor Ministries and Sheridan Village in the Hilltop neighborhood.
“She had a very gentle nature and a very gentle presence but she was also very firmly focused,” said Sister Pam Young, a friend of Sister Helene’s for decades who handles operations for the new cancer program. “What gave her the confidence that she had to get things done was that she was so centered on doing God’s will that how she personally might have felt about something initially was inconsequential to her. What was important was what she thought God was asking, and then she would commit herself to it with all her energy.”
It didn’t take Sister Helene long to act once she saw she could help someone, said Diana Schunn, director of the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County. Schunn worked in the emergency department at then-St. Joseph Medical Center in 1993 when Sister Helene was a vice president there. Schunn was 10 minutes into a presentation about the then-new concept of moving the care of sexual-assault patients from the emergency room to a specialized unit when Sister Helene jumped up and said the hospital needed to do it.
"We had expected a long, drawn-out process; this was no money-maker, it was to serve victims of violence better," Schunn said. But that’s what Sister Helene and the other Sisters of St. Joseph were about, she said.
"When she saw a way to make an impact on people’s lives, she did."
Sister Helene was a Wichita native who entered the Sisters of St. Joseph (now the Congregation of St. Joseph) in 1963. Trained as a teacher, she was very happy teaching elementary school, thinking she’d do it all her life, Sister Pam said. But then she was appointed to leadership positions in her religious community and its hospital, then St. Joseph Medical Center.
Sister Helene directed the Sisters of St. Joseph novices from 1975 to 1990. And then she became vice president of mission development at the hospital, and then senior vice president for mission services when the hospital merged with St. Francis Regional Medical Center to become Via Christi Health System in 1995.
“She welcomed the merger of the hospitals and really embraced it rather than fighting it at all,” said vicar general Hemberger, who is also chaplain for the sisters. “The same thing in the religious life. She brought in sisters from Japan … and India.” After Hurricane Katrina destroyed one religious community’s motherhouse in Louisiana, she took those sisters in.
“There was always more room in the house. … Human nature is sort of a fortress mentality, and that wasn’t hers at all. Hers was a pioneering spirit,” Hemberger said.
From 1992 to 1996, Sister Helene was simultaneously vice president of the sisters and a vice president at the hospital. “Either one of those would have been a full-time job for the average person,” Sister Pam said. But there were many ways in which Sister Helene was not average. She also had had multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years. But “she inherited her father’s genes and could get by on four hours’ sleep at night.”
In 2000, Sister Helene was elected president of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and her leadership led to the sisters joining with six other congregations to form the Congregation of St. Joseph in 2007. At the time of her death she was director of the Magnificat Center at the congregation’s center on East Lincoln.
While she was called to jobs other than teaching, “she continued to teach, just not in a formal classroom,” Sister Pam said. “And a lot of the people who worked with her said she taught them a lot through example.”
One of those people is Jerry Brungardt, medical director of Hynes Memorial Hospice.
“When I was a young doctor, new to the community, she supported me in many ways,” Brungardt said in a note of condolence to the sisters.
“I was always struck by her gaze of love and tenderness, instilling and restoring a confidence in me. Her quiet eyes said to me, ‘You are loved’ by Someone much greater. …
“During her last days her eyes continued to sparkle and shine, to glisten with a deep love and quiet confidence … continuing to instill trust and confidence that I was then able to carry to other patients and families. In a very real way she ministered to the dying and their families from her own death bed.”
Sister Helene’s survivors include a sister, Lin Inkelaar of Fredricksburg, Texas, and two brothers, Stan of Houston and Donn of Wichita.
A memorial has been established with the Spiritual Strengths Cancer Care Program in care of the Congregation of St. Joseph, 3700 E. Lincoln, Wichita KS 67218.