Helen Casey O’Rourke, 92, of Merion Station, a church worker, volunteer, and the mother of nine children, died Saturday, March 14, of congestive heart failure at the Hearth at Drexel in Bala Cynwyd.
Mrs. O’Rourke was the fifth of eight children born in Philadelphia to Dr. Arthur and Elizabeth Casey. She grew up in Overbrook and studied at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, where in her senior year she was voted “the most likely to become a nun.”
And she was, indeed, headed for a life of monastic reflection when her plans were disrupted by a quick-thinking young man named John R. “Jack” O’Rourke. He asked for her hand in marriage; she rejected him, citing her religious calling.
Either through inspiration or desperation, or perhaps both, he countered with an offer she couldn’t refuse. His response went on to become a treasured bit of family lore.
“Entering the convent is very inconsiderate of you, Helen,” he said. “You become a nun and you save your own soul, but if you marry me, you will save two souls.”
“You had to know my dad,” said son John R. O’Rourke Jr. “He was a bright guy, but he was no salesman. He sure knocked it out of the park with that proposal.”
The two were married on Dec. 27, 1948, and embarked on a romance that lasted 57 years until his death in 2005 at age 77.
“They were a great couple. They would go to church every day. They would walk in, hand and hand,” said friend Marilyn Matarazzo, who knew Mrs. O’Rourke through Bible study at St. Margaret Church in Narberth.
“She was an extremely spiritual person, an example to everyone who knew her. She never complained about anything. She could cope with all situations because her faith in God was so strong,” Matarazzo said.
The O’Rourkes were a team, and they needed to be, because they were soon outnumbered by their large brood. The first child, a son, was born in November 1949. Eight more followed from 1951 to 1964.
Since Mr. O’Rourke was a Merchant Marine and away at sea for eight to nine months at a time, much of the child-rearing fell to Mrs. O’Rourke. There were happy times and some difficult years.
“She was strong,” Matarazzo said. “She had backbone.”
“She was courageous,” her son said.
As a young woman, Mrs. O’Rourke played basketball and tennis. She studied math at Rosemont College and was president of the freshman class. She left after freshman year to go to work. A beauty, she modeled clothing for Lit Bros. department store.
Later, she was president of the local chapter of Birthright, a nonprofit that provides support for women facing unplanned pregnancies. She and other Birthright members met Mother Teresa of Calcutta at the 1976 Eucharistic Congress held in Philadelphia.
At St. Margaret, she created and ran a committee to help people in emergencies. She also sang in the church choir and gave Holy Communion to shut-ins.
Mrs. O’Rourke was known for having a happy disposition. She was generous, opening her home to foster children and the elderly, especially during holidays. “I will miss her shiny smile,” Matarazzo said.
A son, Kevin, died in 2010 at age 51. Besides her son John, she is survived by children Edward, Michael, Peggy Walsh, Casey, Barbara Worst, Patte Phalon, and Terri Fischer; 26 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren. She outlived all her siblings.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic there will be no visitation. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, March 19, at St. Margaret Church, 208 N. Narberth Ave., Narberth, Pa. 19072. The Mass will be livestreamed on Facebook. Search for the words St. Margaret of Antioch.
Donations may be made to the church at the address above.