By ROB HERBST
The Catholic Week
MOBILE — Sister Carolyn Oberkirch, R.S.M. has served everyone from children to the elderly and a hospitable heart has been a trademark of her ministry.
Sister Carolyn has been a Sister of Mercy for 56 years, serving in Baltimore and Atlanta before returning to her native Mobile 25 years ago to serve as administrator of the Convent of Mercy retirement home on Wimbledon Drive. Sister Carolyn celebrated her 25th anniversary as administrator of the retirement home on Aug. 28 and has dedicated herself to serving retired sisters in whatever way possible.
For Sister Carolyn, serving has been an honor.
“It has really been a privilege,” Sister Carolyn said. “These sisters have worked so hard and I try and do whatever I can to make them happy, safe and healthy.”
It’s been a labor of love for Sister Carolyn and her fellow sisters love her.
“No request or concern was ever too big or too small and she nearly always found a way,” said Sister Deborah Kennedy, R.S.M. “For the past 25 years she has committed and devoted her life to serving her sisters in community — be it tending to their health needs or growing their fruits and vegetables! And hospitality is the hallmark of her ministry.”
Sister Carolyn is administrator of a residence that includes 13 sisters, ranging in ages from 74 to 95.
Much of Sister Carolyn’s ministry has been dedicated to meeting her fellow sisters’ daily needs, but it’s also been dedicated to ministering to them in their final days.
According to Sister Carolyn, she has buried 30 of her fellow sisters during the past 25 years. Among the most notable was Sister Mary Aidan Donaldson, who died in 2019 at the age of 111.
“(This ministry) has stayed fresh for me and it’s always different, but losing sisters is the hard part,” she said. “But I realized it’s a privilege to go through the dying process with them. It’s not that you get used to it, but you learn to see it differently.”
As Sister Carolyn celebrates her 25th year as administrator, the most recent months may have been the most challenging. A few months ago she said a 100-year-old tree split in half, crashed through a carport and landed on three cars.
“Talk about a sick feeling.”
COVID-19 has also provided its challenges. Fortunately, no sister at the home has tested positive for COVID-19 and Sister Carolyn has credited social distancing precautions which have kept the sisters safe.
But that’s challenging when the Sisters of Mercy retirement home is such a mainstay within its residential neighborhood.
“People are so good to us. Here in the neighborhood, many times we get the leftovers,” Sister Carolyn said. “This week we got flowers from a wedding. People in the neighborhood are just very generous to us.”
Sister Carolyn has spent the last 25 years ministering to those at retirement age, but it’s quite a contrast to how she began her time as a Sister of Mercy.
Sister Carolyn graduated from Little Flower Catholic School and Mercy High School in Mobile, before earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Mt. St. Agnes College and Loyola College in Baltimore.
She taught first grade in Baltimore and then at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School in Atlanta.
“I loved it,” she said.
But it was time for a change and she focused on an outreach ministry for the elderly. She also focused on the homeless and needy.
She was instrumental in founding Interfaith Outreach Home in the Atlanta area, which was built in 1992. It provides transitional housing and a way out of poverty for homeless, working families.
Sister Carolyn returned for a visit in 2016. During that visit a room of the IOH was dedicated in her honor.
According to Sister Carolyn, IOH has assisted 200 families.
“That was one thing I was so proud of, ” she said. “The real test of what you do is whether or not somebody carries it on. I’m just very proud. More and more parishioners are involved in it. … I think what speaks to people about that is it’s changing lives.”
Sister Deborah added: “Our foundress, the Venerable Catherine McAuley of Dublin said ‘Do all you can for God because the time is short.’ Sister Carolyn certainly took that counsel to heart. She has spent her 56 years as a Sister of Mercy responding to the needs of God’s people.”
Ultimately, Sister Carolyn wanted to return to her native Mobile and her family, which includes four siblings.
She had joked with then-Convent of Mercy retirement home administrator, Sister Dominica Hyde, R.S.M., about needing help.
“I had said I was thinking of resigning (in Atlanta) and asked if she needed a little help down (in Mobile),” Sister Carolyn recalled. “She jokingly said ‘why don’t you just come and take it?’ She had given it 29 years and so I’ve been here ever since.”
“And it’s been wonderful.”
By ROB HERBST