Sr. Helen Huewe, OSF, doesn’t shy away from big problems and she doesn’t wait for someone else to fix them. For decades, she has been a tireless champion of human rights, a business visionary and a trailblazer.
For her lifelong dedication to the poor, Sr. Helen is the 2019 recipient of Divine Word College’s Matthew 25 Award.
The Remsen, Iowa native had a long career in healthcare, ministering in the field for more than 40 years. She worked as a nurse aide, a registered nurse and an administrator at Xavier Hospital in Dubuque. During the 1982 consolidation with Mercy Medical Center, Sr. Helen held administration positions and in 1986, she was promoted to President and CEO at Mercy. After more than a decade as the hospital’s leader, she retired in 1997. Sr. Helen says she played a little golf but then she got back down to business.
In the late 1990s, all of the Catholic women religious communities in the greater Dubuque area came together with a desire to provide safe housing for homeless women and their children. They knew it would take someone with business savvy and foresight to steer the ship. Sr. Helen stepped in as the Project Initiator for what would become Opening Doors, the legal corporation for Maria House, Teresa Shelter and most recently the Francis Apartments in Dubuque.
It wasn’t easy to jump into something so unlike her experience in the medical field but she said it was a great learning experience. One day, Sr. Helen had a realization while shopping for supplies to stock the organization’s new office.
“I was buying a stapler and I thought, I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know which staples fit, so I asked for help,” she recalls. “I came out and I laughed at myself and I thought, you just ran a hospital and you can’t even buy a stapler.”
The experience reminded her that she didn’t need to be an expert at everything in the business. So she got to work assembling a team of specialists who could contribute to the project under her guidance.
Since 2000, Opening Doors has served more than 3,400 homeless women and children.
Sr. Helen has leant her expertise and aid to a number of worthy causes over the years. She helped develop Step by Step, a housing project for people with disabilities, especially the mobility impaired. The program is currently under ownership and management by Hills & Dales. She is also involved with the group that is repurposing the former St. Mary’s Church campus in Dubuque into a collaborative, inclusive community center.
In 2003, Sr. Helen’s dream of developing a community health center to serve the uninsured and underinsured of Dubuque came true when federal funding became available in the state of Iowa. She jumped at the opportunity and by 2006, Crescent Community Health Center opened its doors with Sr. Helen serving first as staff and then as chair of the board. There was so much need for care, especially dental, that appointments were filling up well before the building was even complete.
Sr. Helen says her devotion to the poor can be credited to her beloved mother, who was a great influence on her. When she passed away at age 97, Sr. Helen wondered how she would ever manage to live without her mom. Then she thought of the crucifix and realized that she already had the answer.
“John and Mary are at the foot of the cross and Jesus says to them ‘I’m out of here. Take care of each other,’” she said. “So that’s what drives me.”
Today, Sr. Helen’s passion project is working with the Marshallese community in Dubuque. She first came to know this group because Marshallese women served as caregivers at Mt. St. Francis. She learned that the local Marshallese community was in danger of losing its church because members couldn’t make their final payment by the set deadline. In 2018, Sr. Helen became involved with Dubuque Paradise Church project. Through the collaborative efforts of a group known as Paradise Friends, ownership of the church was achieved and rehab of the church began. Paradise Church is more than a church – it is also a community center where their culture and lives are shared.
Sr. Helen is also involved with Crescent Community Health Center’s Pacific Islander Health Project, which provides assistance to the Marshallese people regarding their health needs.
Sr. Helen says she is filled with joy each time she sees the community come together in the church. It’s just one more piece of her legacy of love.
“Everybody has to do their little bit. You can’t do it individually, if you think you can, you’re crazy,” she said. “You can’t do it all, so you do what you can.”
The Matthew 25 Award was established at DWC in 2001 to honor those in or connected to the area, who minister in the spirit of the Gospel message put forth in Matthew 25:35-36:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”