Remarkable life of nursing, faith

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By Mick Jensen

Reverend Helen Wallis enjoyed an extensive nursing career, but for the past 40 years she’s been an ordained minister, working in Anglican and Presbyterian churches.

Ill health forced her into early retirement in 2002, but she returned 18 months later and is now fondly referred to by some as the “recycled Rev”.

Rev Wallis has covered a number of interim ministry or short term relief positions around the South Island since her “comeback”, including at Maniototo, St Stephen’s Timaru, Temuka (twice), the Mackenzie Co-operating Parish, which includes both Anglican and Presbyterian churches at Fairlie and Tekapo, and St Andrew’s in Balclutha.

Now approaching 77, she continues to “do God’s work” and is the interim Minister for St Paul’s Presbyterian Parish in Hampstead and St James’ Presbyterian Parish.

Rev Wallis was nurtured in the Christian faith and worshipped in the Anglican Church, growing up in Masterton and Christchurch.

She trained as a nurse at the Timaru Public Hospital and her extensive nursing experience covered obstetrics, plastic surgery, midwifery, clinical tutoring and psychiatric nursing. She was a public health nurse in Ashburton from 1967-70.

Rev Wallis felt “the confirmation of a calling” at the age of 33, touched by the words “feed my sheep” in a sermon.

Canon Law prevented the ordination of Anglican women in the early 1970s and she struggled with her sense of calling.

A process of discernment began with her association and participation in a Presbyterian parish and she began her theological studies at Knox Theological Hall in Dunedin in 1975.

Ordained as a parish minister in 1978, she served first in Lawrence-Waitahuna Presbyterian Parish, followed by a short ministry with the Green Island Parish.

She was appointed to the Christchurch Hospital Chaplaincy team in 1985.

“It made sense to use my nursing background as a hospital chaplain and I really enjoyed my eight years in Christchurch and another year in Timaru in that role.”

She also trained in industrial chaplaincy and served terms as the Moderator for the Clutha and Christchurch presbyteries.

In 2010, the recently retired Bishop of Christchurch, the Right Reverend Victoria Matthews, invited her to return to the Anglican Church as a priest.

“After more than 30 years as an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, I was able to return to my home denomination as a priest.

“I was required to reaffirm my vows, which I willingly did.”

Rev Wallis says both churches believe in the same God, but there are some significant differences in governance and liturgical focus, though she is privileged to be among the few who have been called to serve in both denominations.

Rev Wallis has moved home around 17 times for her nursing and church careers and late last year moved with her husband of 37 years, John, to Ashburton.

She describes her new home town as “God’s holding paddock” or “God’s waiting room”.

Outside of her professional life, she enjoys decorating, is an able sewer, and has just become a member of fun-loving Ashburton Red Hat Society.

“There have been times when as a midwife I have delivered a baby girl, then years later made the wedding dress and taken the wedding ceremony, and at times I’ve have baptised the children, so I’ve seen it all,” she said.