Sister M. Elena, CSC
(Helen Joan Malits)
July 3, 1934–March 10, 2022
We share news of the death of Sister M. Elena (Malits), CSC, who died at 4:15 p.m. on March 10, 2022, in the Ernestine M. Raclin Hospice House, Mishawaka, Indiana. Sister Elena entered the Congregation from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 1, 1956. Her initial profession of vows took place February 2, 1959.
Please join us in prayer for Sister as we renew our faith in the resurrected Jesus and strengthen our hope that all the departed will be raised to eternal life.
Sister M. Elena was born July 3, 1934, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as Helen Joan Malits. Her parents were Amelia Kobca Malits, a native of Pittsburgh, and Frank Malits, who was Austrian born. Together they ran a bakery business. Her younger sister, Grace Webb, who now lives in Seattle, Washington, completed the family. Years later, Sister Elena started the beginnings of an autobiography as a way to reflect on her life and its meaning. She described herself as a hyperactive child, who was dancing at age 3 onward. She quit piano lessons because they required her to sit still. Helen Malits grew up in Pittsburgh attending St. George Grade School followed by high school at St. Francis Academy, from which she graduated in 1952. At 19 years old, she had a sudden illness, only the first of many other health challenges that developed throughout her life. Since then, “I was no longer physically hyperactive, but nonetheless, continuously occupied.”
As an intense student at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, she was intellectually curious. “I loved to be alone and read, but then there was the performer in me who wanted to proclaim to an audience what I read, wrote, or thought.” Helen came to know many Sisters of the Holy Cross who sponsored the college and taught her. With her outgoing personality, she entered fully into campus life. Among her “many loves” were “vigorous conversations” and involvement in Young Christian Students (YCS), Young Christian Workers and the Christian Family Movement. All these lay movements predated the Second Vatican Council and were formative for her where “I had learned how to reflect on the gospels and to connect those insights with my immediate social situation” by observing, judging and taking action. Her talent for dance was expressed in Saint Mary’s College musicals and led her as a junior to a semester in Vienna, Austria, with a group of dance students from different colleges. By the time of her graduation from Saint Mary’s College in 1956, with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Helen had become convinced of her vocation to the religious life, although not overjoyed. Perhaps she imagined that both her social life and intellectual life would be stifled. Though she was religiously inclined since childhood, having read Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, “I was not religiously sentimental.” Her call to religious life was a call outside her control, she said. “It was a matter of conviction, not attraction,” based on God’s initiative.
Her entrance to the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross in August 1956 soon followed. She received the name Sister M. Elena at reception of the holy habit on February 2, 1957. Elena was a variant of her baptismal name, Helen. No doubt there was another Helen in the Congregation at the time. One’s name was meant to emphasize the particular call each woman received. While completing her religious formation, she also earned her master’s in theology from Saint Mary’s School of Sacred Theology, Notre Dame, Indiana, in 1959.
Sister Elena began her lifetime ministry as a theologian at Cardinal Cushing College in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she taught for eight years from 1959 to 1967, chairing the department for the last two years. Her correspondence reveals that she was thrilled with her assignment and passionate about her life as a sister and the opportunities it provided. Next came three years of study at Fordham University in New York where she earned a doctorate in theology in 1973. Her doctoral dissertation on Thomas Merton grew out of her interest in his conversion story, The Seven Storey Mountain. Her own scholarly book, The Solitary Explorer: Thomas Merton’s Transforming Journey, was published in 1980 by Harper & Row with much acclaim while she was on the faculty at Saint Mary’s College.
Sister Elena had returned to her alma mater in 1970, where she distinguished herself as a creative teacher of theology at Saint Mary’s College. There she wrote “a respectable number of articles accepted in scholarly journals,” earned tenure, and was promoted to full professor in the Religious Studies Department. Chronic illness led to her decision to retire in 2000. As professor emerita, Sister Elena initiated a course at the college titled “Religion and Film” while living on campus, transferring to Saint Mary’s Convent in 2004. The film course appealed to youth who had not grown up in a culture of scriptural texts and images. Sister Elena used film as a lens through which to view the human condition. Through this medium of light, Sister helped young women see, discern and make mature choices about good and evil, love and loss, transformation and redemption.
Whether as Helen or Elena, Sister’s name means “bright, shining light.” As a religious studies professor she used her gifts of speaking, writing, analysis and imagination to shine a light on the deep mystery of human experience. This vivacious woman was never at a loss for words. Sister Elena knew how best to tell the Christian Story in contemporary times. Her students appreciated her openness as they developed their own spirituality, Catholic or not. One student wrote years later that she learned from Sister Elena that “there are many paths up the mountain, if one has the courage to begin.”
Sister Elena had courage. She was a woman who had the strength and insight to live fully. She believed that reflection on suffering can lead to self-knowledge, to decision, to action, whether by an individual or a community. She did not end her life at the top of the mountain but came back down into the valley to imagine “a new heaven and new earth” (Revelation 21).
Due to her chronic health issues, Sister Elena had a tough time throughout the long pandemic at Saint Mary’s Convent. After a short hospitalization, Sister chose hospice care. She died peacefully at age 87 years old. Fittingly, a Sister of the Holy Cross and a colleague from the Saint Mary’s College community were with her when she died. She was already surrounded by the love and prayers of so many who knew her in life and who will remain connected with her by eternal bonds of affection.
We invite you to donate to the Ministry With the Poor Fund in Sister’s name.—Written by Sister Catherine Osimo, CSC, and Sister Grace Shonk, CSC