Remembering Jesuit Father Raymond G. Helmick, Peacemaker and Artist

April 22, 2016 - Raymond Helmick was born on Sept. 7, 1931, in Arlington, Mass., a western suburb of Boston, and grew up there. His father had come from Midwestern German Lutheran stock; his mother had been born in Boston, the daughter of Irish immigrants. Ray was the second of three children. His sister Marie was the oldest; his brother Bill, six years younger, became a diocesan priest. Ray attended St. Agnes Parish schools through the ninth grade and then transferred to Boston College High School. He graduated in 1949 and entered the Shadowbrook novitiate on his 18th birthday.

It turned out he would enter the Society twice. The first time he developed a stomach ulcer during his primi year and, because there had been a spate of ulcer diagnoses in the novitiate, superiors decided that first-year novices so afflicted would be sent home. Ray was determined to re-apply, however, and he entered Shadowbrook again in February 1951. This time proved more auspicious and his novitiate and juniorate years passed uneventfully. After philosophy studies at Weston (1954-1957), he spent regency teaching history and religion at St. George’s College in Kingston, Jamaica (1957-1960).

He did theology studies at Sankt Georgen, in Frankfurt, Germany, and was ordained a priest in the Frankfurt cathedral in August 1963. He returned to the U.S. the following year for tertianship at Pomfret, Conn. As was the custom with men assigned to the missions, he returned to Jamaica and St. George’s.

Here, Ray’s future work with social and political structures and conflict-resolution initiatives began to take shape. In walks through Kingston this blond, precisely spoken, reserved, very white man got to know a number of Rastafarians, a bible-oriented group of urban and rural poor often demonized in Jamaican society. He became something of a sympathetic friend, representing them to government agencies and writing in positive terms about them in the Jamaican press.

Expecting to teach at the Kingston seminary, Ray left Jamaica in 1967 to pursue graduate studies in ecumenical theology at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. In the summer of 1972, he led a group of theology students to Belfast, a city notable then for its sectarian conflicts. The visit proved life-changing, he said. Driving a rental car around the group’s work sites and talking to everybody as he went, he established friendships with people on all sides of the religious and political troubles. Perceiving that the problems were less religious than economic, Ray set about bringing groups together to address one key issue, job development. He agreed to lead an effort to persuade American and British companies to establish manufacturing facilities in neighborhoods accessible to both Protestant and Catholic populations, whose safety would be guaranteed by both government and IRA factions. This occupied much of his time during his last year at Union.

When he left Union in 1973, he moved to London, where he set up an ecumenical center focused on conflict resolution (he preferred the Mennonite term “conflict transformation”), a joint ministry of the Irish and British Jesuit provinces. Dialogue and correspondence with key political and religious leaders in the patient search for solutions to apparently intractable problems became the center of his work over the next four decades—in Ireland, Lebanon, Kurdish Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and the Balkans. It was necessarily a hidden apostolate, as it often involved figures whose names would otherwise grab headlines, in many of the world’s hot spots—simply applying the principles of Ignatian discernment, he described it.

From 1982 to 1985, he was based at NGOs in Washington. Then he moved to Boston College, where for the next 17 years he continued his conflict-resolution work while teaching related courses in the theology department and at St. John’s Seminary. He made firm friendships in ecumenical circles in Boston’s theological schools. From 2002-2004, he served as senior associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

Ray had a lifelong interest in music, architecture, and other art forms. When he graduated from B.C. High he had been offered a piano scholarship at the New England Conservatory but chose the Jesuit novitiate instead. In his years of graduate study at Union he relaxed by building a harpsichord. When he returned to Boston, his artistic interests blossomed again. His brother Bill had become pastor of St. Theresa’s, a large parish in the heavily Catholic West Roxbury section of Boston, and was now renovating the church. Ray built a magnificent free-standing tabernacle of gilded and polychromed wood, modeled on 15th-century examples at Louvain. Then he began work on a mosaic of Christ healing, for a wall next to a handicapped ramp at the church. A large mosaic of St. Theresa was unfinished when he died.

Illness brought him to Campion Center in 2012. He continued as many of his activities as health allowed (even teaching on a part-time basis at B.C. until 2015), but the last years of his life were marked by a series of complications and hospitalizations. He seemed to rally from each with his characteristic cheerfulness, patience, and wit intact, but his body was slowly giving out. 

Just after Easter, his brother Bill had major surgery and the superior at Campion invited him to recuperate there. Meanwhile Ray had been hospitalized again. The two brothers arrived at Campion within a day of each other and occupied nearby rooms. Family members gathered for a lunch celebrating Ray’s upcoming 85th birthday. Three days later, his conditioned worsened and Ray was anointed. Cardinal Sean O’Malley came to pray at his bedside. He died peacefully in the early morning of April 21, 2016.


Mon., April 25, 2016  
3:00-5:00 p.m. (Prayer Service at 4:30 p.m.) 
Campion Center
319 Concord Road 
Weston, Mass.
Tues., April 26, 2016  
10:00 a.m.                 
Campion Center
Campion Center Cemetery

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