Sister Mary Aidan Donaldson, R.S.M.: 1908-2019
By ROB HERBST
The Catholic Week
MOBILE, Ala. — Sister Mary Aidan Donaldson, R.S.M., worked in education for almost 50 years, and that wasn’t nearly half her life story.
The eldest Sister of Mercy in the world and possibly the oldest living religious died Oct. 25, 2019, at the age of 111, at the Convent of Mercy retirement home in Mobile. She arrived in Mobile from her native County Down, Northern Ireland, during the Great Depression in 1929 and impacted generations of people throughout her assignments, mostly in Alabama.
“You wouldn’t be able to count how many people she’s touched,” said Sister Carolyn Oberkirch, R.S.M, who lived with Sister Aidan for 24 years. “What a full life she led all these years. What a good religious she was.”
Sister Marilyn Graf, R.S.M., who knew Sister Aidan for about 50 years, credited Sister’s Aidan love of life and people as among the reasons for her longevity.
She was known as the “official greeter” for the convent during her retirement years.
“She loved everybody and she loved for people to come in,” said Sister Marilyn. “She sat (in the living room) most of the time when she felt good.”
Sister Aidan did her best to stay young at heart. In her 80s, she attended religious education classes at and also took up watercolor painting. She received a computer for her 100th birthday.
She played games on the computer thanks to a game subscription service and her favorite was Mahjong, according to Sister Carolyn.
“That (game service) was the best $40 spent every year,” Sister Carolyn joked.
That 100th birthday in 2008 turned out to be quite festive.
Sister Aidan relished a good time and her birthday included a party with mimosas and breakfast in the morning, followed by a nightcap bash at the convent where “400 people came through those doors,” Sister Carolyn said.
“I don’t know how she did it,” Sister Carolyn said. “She never sat down in the morning. I got worried. But she loved the attention. And she had two dresses – one for the morning and one for the evening.”
Sister Marilyn said she was known for “being a lady. Very prim and proper.”
Sister Aidan was also a dedicated reader and was often found reading up on the news of the day.
“She was a person who was interested in everything. She was always reading a newspaper or magazine. And she was always ready to accept new things and she was a go-person,” Sister Marilyn said.
Go she did in 1929 after Religious Sisters of Mercy in Mobile visited Northern Ireland. Sister Aidan said she “didn’t know where (Mobile) was on the face of the earth,” in a 2010 Mobile Press-Register story.
But she added, “When I thought about it I said, ‘Well, I did commit myself to God, and whatever he wanted was what I wanted.’ I had been thinking of nursing when I got the call from these two nuns. But it wasn’t a call from them. It was a call from God when I made up my mind.”
Her first assignment was as a teacher at St. Joseph School in Mobile. Much of her time was spent as teacher and principal at St. Ignatius in Mobile. She also taught at St. Mary, Convent of Mercy and St. Joan of Arc in Mobile; in Huntsville, Birmingham and Bessemer, Ala.; Pensacola, Fla, and Baltimore before moving into parish ministry in 1978.
As a teacher, the petite Sister Aidan was known as being tough, but fair.
“She was formidable. There was just something about her that called for respect,” Sister Carolyn said.
While tough, students fondly remembered their former teacher.
Sister Aidan’s most famous student was singer Jimmy Buffett, who had sent her birthday cards during her retirement years.
Although Sister Aidan lived to 111, she had hardships. Her mother died when Sister Aidan was an infant and her lone brother died only five months after birth. She attended boarding school while her father worked in the railroad industry.
In 1938, Sister Aidan contracted tuberculosis and spent two years in a sanatorium and hospital.
“This is a lady that suffered a lot when you think she was out of commission that long,” Sister Marilyn said. “But she lived to 111. She had weak lungs, but she was amazing.”
Visitation is from 3-5 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Convent of Mercy. Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi will celebrate the funeral Mass at 11 a.m. Nov. 4 at St. Ignatius Parish in Mobile.