Sister Helen Costello of Sacred Heart Schools looks back at her years of ministry
In her office, 88-year-old Sister Helen Costello has an embroidered wall hanging that reads, "Love is in giving with no thought of getting. It is tenderness enfolding with strength to protect. It is forgiveness without further thought of the thing forgiven."
Sister Costello's life is a testament to these words. In her 67 years as part of the Religious of the Sacred Heart and a teacher at Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, she has devoted her time to helping hundreds of people.
Befriending and guiding flocks of lively adolescents. Driving disabled individuals to church. Sitting at the bedsides of dying children. Visiting criminals in prison. These are just some of the missions that she has undertaken over the years.
To commemorate Sister Costello's lifelong ministry, the Religious of the Sacred Heart is hosting an open house Aug. 4 from 3 to 5 p.m. at Sacred Heart. The celebration will take place in Sister Costello's "Castle" — the small cottage that was once the hub of her many projects. The Castle will be closing in the next year, according to a school spokeswoman.
An unusual Castle
Home to Sister Costello until her recent move to Sacred Heart's Oakwood retirement home, the Castle has a rich history. Once a dilapidated cottage occupied by the men who took care of the convent's cows many years ago, it was transformed by Sister Costello's "boys" — former altar boys once supervised by Sister Costello when she taught at St. Joseph's elementary school, part of Sacred Heart Schools.
So strong was the bond formed between Sister Costello and the boys that many kept coming back to see her as they grew older. And she took to organizing social functions and projects for them.
Because the convent parlor wasn't exactly an ideal location for a boisterous crowd of boys to converge, the nuns searched for another place on the property where Sister Costello could hold her social gatherings, said Sister Nancy Morris. What they found was the old cow-tenders' cottage.
The boys dubbed the house "the Castle," because it was "such a dump," Sister Costello recalls with laughter. However, the young men saw promise in the rundown structure.
"They said to me, 'Mother, we can fix it up,'" Sister Costello remembers.
And fix it up they did. Sister Costello's Castle is a charming, cream-colored abode resting on a small path several hundred feet from Oakwood.
Pastel flowers, stone figurines and wind chimes surround the path to the door. Inside is a newly renovated kitchen, a bedroom, two dining rooms and her office.
Stories on the walls
More than anything, the Castle now stands as physical testament to all that Sister Costello has devoted her life to.
In the past, the Castle was constantly bustling with the activities — lunches, support groups, parties — that Sister Costello hosted. She stopped teaching in 1967 to devote her time to activities in the Castle and beyond.
These days, she uses the cottage mostly for small, occasional gatherings such as her ice cream socials for widows.
Today, hundreds of pictures, clippings, cards and other mementos adorn the walls, each telling a small part of Sister Costello's story. A walk around her office reveals some of the most significant chapters in her life: her beloved former students and altar boys, the miracle of Darrell Dorfmeier, the dying children she comforted and the felons she visited in prison.
Pictures of athletes are pinned alongside yellowed newspaper clippings on a large bulletin board near her desk — images of "her boys" who kept in touch even after successful ventures in the sports world.
Football players Dan Pastorini, Don Bunce and Jim Plunkett were among her flock. When Mr. Pastorini asked Sister Costello to pray that he be chosen as the quarterback of the North-South Shriner's team in 1967, he promised that he would write to Rome for permission for her to attend the game should his hope be fulfilled. At the time, the strict cloister rules for the nuns were slowly and reluctantly being lifted.
When Mr. Pastorini was chosen, he kept his promise. Although several hoops had to be jumped through, Sister Costello was able to go to Los Angeles for the game.
A surrogate son
A significant amount of wall space is devoted to one football player in particular, Darrell Dorfmeier. In early 1969, the recently graduated Woodside High School student was in a motorcycle accident. Someone called Sister Costello from the hospital in the middle of the night and told her that he was declared dead on arrival. As he hung on through life support, the medics thought he was nearing his last breath.
"I was told to just pray for him," she remembers.
But she did more than that. She immediately drove to the hospital and stayed with him, holding his hand to let him know that someone cared about him. As his mother had died when he was only 13 and his father was very ill, Sister Costello was Mr. Dorfmeier's only lifeline.
"I realized that he had nobody," she says.
She returned day after day until one day he responded. Slowly recovering, he remained in the hospital for several months before being released. Although Mr. Dorfmeier had lost his left leg and had to learn how to speak with damaged vocal chords, he had gained a surrogate mother.
Sister Costello has remained a part of his life. She introduced him to his future wife, Alba, and even walked him down the aisle. Because neither of the newlyweds could drive, she drove them to their honeymoon as well.
The Dorfmeiers now have two children, who fondly refer to her as Nanny — testament to her role as surrogate grandmother, too.
Next to the bulletin board devoted to Darrell Dorfmeier, more than two hundred pictures of children and teenagers overlap in a large collage. Their toothy grins almost obscure the fact that many of them have no hair, are in wheelchairs or appear bedridden. Sister Costello explains that all of these children have died from cancer.
A strange phone call she received many years ago prompted her to become part of these children's lives. A local motel manager had a distraught guest whose son was in the hospital and desperately needed white blood cells, she explains. Without further thought, Sister Costello agreed to donate her white blood cells at the Children's Hospital at Stanford, she recalls.
She says she has no idea why that motel manager called her.
"I guess word gets around that I do crazy things," she surmises.
For years after, Sister Costello would not only donate her blood, she would sit at the bedside of dying children as well, offering them all that she could — comfort and prayer.
When a child passed away, she often would arrange the burial and drive the body to the mortuary herself.
"I was able to bring relief to the families because they knew who I was and knew I would give their children tender loving care," she says.
On the go
Pictures of people in wheelchairs are clustered on a bulletin board across Sister Costello's office. These are members of the group, "Handicapables," whom Sister Costello used to drive to social functions and Mass once a week for many years. She volunteered with the organization that ran this ministry until she was unable to drive herself.
Sister Costello also invited the Handicapables to gatherings at Sacred Heart, once having more than 750 of them along with their families and friends over for an outdoor party complete with live entertainment.
There are also clippings of the famous 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping — in which Richard and James Schoenfeld of Woodside and Fred Woods of Atherton hijacked a bus full of children and left it entombed in a quarry for ransom.
When Sister Costello first heard about the incident, she thought it was "the most hideous crime." After listening to an inspiring homily at Mass three years later, however, she realized that she wanted to visit the kidnappers in prison.
Coincidentally, she then met the Schoenfelds' older brother, who was a good friend of Mr. Dorfmeier, and later decided to visit the three captors in prison. Thus began a routine of visiting the men several times a year, even when they were moved to prisons farther away.
A life-altering decision
Sister Costello's life could have taken an entirely different track. Born in 1918, she grew up in Los Altos with four sisters and two brothers. She attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Menlo Park (now Atherton) as a boarder and graduated in 1935.
After attending Lone Mountain (the San Francisco College for Women) for a year, she planned to leave home and enter the convent at the age of 18.
That aspiration was temporarily thwarted when her family asked her to help them out financially. It was 1936 and the Great Depression was taking its toll on America.
"I was ready to enter [the convent], and I had my suitcase ready to go, but I closed it for three years once they asked for my help," she remembers.
She went to work as a sales representative in San Francisco for her uncle's department store, O'Connor, Moffat & Co. — now Macy's. Three years passed and as her 21st birthday approached, Sister Costello was faced with two choices: to go on a buying trip for the store in New York — a very exciting prospect for a young woman, she says — or to enter the convent as she had previously planned to do.
She chose the latter, packing up that once-abandoned suitcase and going to Albany, New York, to enter the noviceship of the Sacred Heart.
"I have no regrets," she says. "I'm not sorry I didn't go on that buying trip."
Sister Costello's first years as an active nun were spent teaching at Sacred Heart schools in Seattle and Missouri. She then returned to her roots in Menlo Park to teach at St. Joseph's School in the early 1950s and hasn't looked back since.
"They didn't want me anywhere else, so they kept me here," she jokes.
As Sister Costello narrates the stories reflected on the Castle's walls, she can only praise those who have helped her help others.
"I don't do anything alone," she says.
After undergoing seven surgeries, and nearing her 89th year, Sister Costello is starting to accept that she must leave her Castle behind.
"It's time to slow down," she says.
Three minutes later, she's already planning another ice cream social.