She talks with compassion about the hurt married couples are experiencing when they seek her help for problems in their relationships--crises often complicated by alcoholism, emotional difficulties or job-related issues.
Speaking deliberately, her seriousness occasionally softened by a infectious smile, she draws upon the wisdom of nearly 20 years as a marriage and family therapist.
Only the small wooden cross on the lapel of her rose-colored suit gives a clue: This therapist is a Catholic nun.
Sister Helen Szekely, 59, is the director of the Pilgrimage Family Therapy Center in Orange, a private nonprofit mental health center sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange.
The center, a homey suite of offices in a former family residence on East Chapman Avenue, offers therapy for individuals, couples and families on a sliding fee scale.
Despite the center's religious affiliation, Sister Helen and the center's four other therapists do not impose religion on their clients, she said. However, she and her colleagues, who are not members of a religious order, "are very aware of the spiritual resources of people, and we help them get in touch with that."
Sister Helen good-naturedly acknowledges that some people may find it unusual that a nun is dispensing advice to couples caught in the throes of marital difficulties.
"How can a nun do marriage counseling?" is a question that does come up from time to time, she said. Being a nun gives her distance, she said. "Not being married, I have that advantage of objectivity--that I don't bring into the therapy session my own marital struggles.
"The other thing is all the issues that come up in marriage also come up in other adult relationships, so they come up in my life, too. . . . I still need to work out a lot of the issues of listening, being supportive and not being demanding.
"I think the fact a lot of other therapists seek me out as a consultant and as a mentor gives me confidence that celibacy is not a detriment to being a good marriage counselor. When people come in and they feel that their relationship is just right but they have a sexual problem, I refer that couple to a sex therapist. So where I am limited, I refer them to someone who is better."
Sister Helen estimates that nine out of 10 of her clients know before their first appointments that she is a nun. "Some do come with some misgivings," she said, "but once they get to know me, they feel at ease."
In fact, one Tustin couple experiencing communication problems after 22 years of marriage saw the fact that their marriage counselor is a nun as a bonus.
"Basically, I'm very leery in general of many in the counseling profession, but she was absolutely trustworthy," said Patrick, who asked that his last name not be used. "It actually helped for me that she was a nun. I felt I could trust her more because she is a nun.
"I consider her brilliant. She has a lot of insight."
Joan and Walt Horn of Seal Beach similarly had no misgivings when they decided to see Sister Helen about 1 1/2 years ago. Married 23 years, the Horns have what he calls an "excellent marriage." "It was not a troubled marriage but a marriage with troubles," he said. Chief among them were what he described as ineffective communication compounded by mid-life changes.
Sister Helen "is very intelligent, and she's got a lot of good insights based on just sitting down and talking with you," Walt Horn said. "She can cut through very cleanly what is a problem. She has a very warm and inviting personal attitude."
Sister Helen has put a lot of time and study into counseling, a career she took up in mid-life. Previously a religion teacher, she had been asked by her superiors in the late 1960s to retrain to become a clinical social worker. She realized she did not know enough about family therapy, she said, "so I directed all my energies to learn. And I really enjoyed it, because I began to understand not only people but also my own relationships."
Over the years, Sister Helen, a native of Hungary, has earned a Ph.D. in sociology (with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy), founded Pilgrimage (in 1981) and joined the faculties of the Orange County campuses of the California Graduate Institute and the University of San Francisco. "Once a teacher, always a teacher," she said.
Over the years, she also has counseled hundreds of married couples struggling with conflicts.
And, as time has gone by, she said, she has found that the fundamental things indeed do still apply.
That was borne out by a study she conducted while working on a master's degree in social work at USC 18 years ago. The study involved 120 people: happily married couples, married couples undergoing counseling and divorced individuals.