Remembering Sister Helen Barrett

MMUK friend and film maker Alex Leger, sent his memories of Sister Helen Barrett following the tribute in our Summer 2020 Melanesia News.

I was very sad to read that Sister Helen had died but at 98 she had quite a long innings. I last saw her in 2000 in Brisbane when I was on my way out to the Solomons on the recce for the Blue Peter filming. She was as sprightly as ever and remembered me (thank goodness) from when I was the VSO at Alangaula in 1966. She was the Sister at Kerepei Hospital (her second stint).

In 1966-7 we had dinner on a few occasions and at the first occasion she told me that Father Brock was going dangerously deaf but refused to go to Honiara to be seen by a specialist. She wanted me and Doug Henry (who was a teacher at Alangaula) to ‘soften him up’ before she tackled him yet again! Thanks to Doug, Dan Brock went off about a month later. For me, with the headmaster gone, it was a wonderful respite from the irascible Father B!

I subsequently got the 1st Ugi Sea Scouts to trim the Kerepei Hospital grounds for her with a young Willie P in charge! I remember Willie chastising members of the troop who wanted to speak pidgin English while they worked. It was a school rule that only proper English should be used.

Alex in 1967 having spent the day working fruitlessly on the school generator...hence the oily rag!
Alex in 1967 having spent the day working fruitlessly on the school generator…hence the oily rag!

Later in 1967 some American scientists (seismologists) from Hawaii University stopped off for a couple of days before continuing to Honiara. They came ashore bearing gifts – fizzy drinks tablets. The boys ate them without putting them in water first and the gases swelled up inside them causing them to pass wind continuously. They flocked to Sister Helen in alarm for urgent medical treatment. She told me later that when she realised what it was she had trouble keeping a straight face!

She also mentioned her time in the Torres Strait and was very proud of still being useful in her 70s! She was always filling up shipping containers in Brisbane and shipping them out to the COM.

In December 1966 I travelled with her on the Southern Cross (when Captain Eric Healy was in charge) and we went from Ugi to Walande en route for Honiara. That was my first sight of the artificial island in the Port Adam Lagoon that has held my interest since. As we left the lagoon the sea picked up and we were literally ‘shipping it green’ over the bow. I had a deck cabin and I remember waiting between the waves before dashing into the cabin and slamming the door before the wave hit. The water spurted in around the door to about waist height…Sister Helen was no sailor and the evening meal was an interesting affair with waiters posted behind us to catch the plates as they flew off the table! She only lasted about 5 minutes before rushing off to be seasick. Poor woman.

I really liked her.

Alex Leger

To read more about Sister Helen Barrett;
Anglican Sister who served here for years dies in Australia
Helen Barrett MBE AO: St Aidan’s alumna revered in the Solomons