Sister Helen (2002)


God bless Sister Helen Travis, with her foul mouth, black wimple, "I ♥ Jesus" T-shirt, and irascible, abrasive attitude. She might be a bit crazy, this feisty, diminutive 69-year-old Benedictine nun living in a rundown South Bronx building with as many as 20-plus male drug addicts and alcoholics abiding by her strict regiment of curfews, urine tests, community service, and biweekly house meetings. But she’s also the best thing that’s happened to many of them in a long time.

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2002, R & R Films / HBO. Directed by Rebecca Cammisa and Rob Fruchtman. Documentary.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value

+3 / -2

Age Appropriateness

Teens & Up

MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Constant references to and some depictions of drug abuse; recurring obscene and vulgar references.

During the course of this stark, compelling Sundance award-winning documentary, which eschews voiceover narration and Q&A interview footage for fly-on-the-wall observation, we learn that the woman who founded the John Thomas Travis Center on East 142nd Street in the Bronx is herself a recovering alcoholic who was once married and had three children. By the time she was in her mid-fifties, her husband and two sons were both dead, the husband to heart attack, the sons to drug overdose and murder (her daughter is still alive). At 56 she became a Benedictine nun, and shortly afterward founded the Center to "do for other people’s sons what I couldn’t do for my own." Her Center is an opportunity for redemption for these men, and also for herself.

At times Sr. Helen shows great affection for her men; other times her tough-love approach seems to verge on excessive harshness, even cruelty. Barking, snapping, upbraiding charges and candidates alike for offenses ranging from lying to relapsing to failing to shower, the tiny woman can reduce a hulking man to the brink of tears, while other residents stand by grinning stupidly like schoolboys watching the scolding of a classmate.

But then one resident says in a chastened voice, "Sometimes I feel like she’s too good to us… We shouldn’t take advantage of that," and one wonders if some of her charges don’t find the very harshness of her treatment energizing. There’s even a level of kitsch in the old dame’s sanctified grandma-from-hell routine, as she sarcastically laces into her charges with rosary beads clutched in her hands, then wanders down a hallway humming Sinatra’s "I Did It My Way."

The Center is no free ride, and unlike AA is not a lifelong alternative to an addictive lifestyle. Sr. Helen’s goal is to help residents transition back into normal life, usually within six months, and besides helping them stay clean she helps them find jobs, even providing references. In addition, residents are expected to pay rent, work in the Center’s food and clothing distribution program, and help maintain the Center’s common areas.

Directors Rebecca Cammisa and Rob Fruchtman find a remarkable level of drama in daily life at the Center, and manage to be present at a number of striking events. Among the most memorable are a confrontation over a positive drug test with a surprising ending, a pathetically funny and strangely touching relapse scene, and a shocker event that overshadows the entire film.

By the film’s end, we’ve gotten to know a number of the Center’s residents, including Ashish, a hard-drinking Indian immigrant who seems unable to stay on the wagon, Major, an older black man who wears his eight years of sobriety with rumpled dignity, Robert, once a corporate bigwig pulling down six figures who now lives in the neighborhood he once commuted to from the suburbs to score drugs. The film is grimly realistic about these men’s chances: Sister Helen is not without hope, but there’s no false optimism or sentimentality; this is reality, not fiction, and as Sr. Helen poignantly observes, "How many second chances do you get?"

See the film, and say a prayer for Sr. Helen. Pray, too, for others to join in her work.

Documentary, Religious Themes