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Co Down girl who spent 90 years touching countless lives in the USA dies, aged 111

Mercy Sister Mary Aidan Donaldson worked in education for almost 50 years – but that wasn’t nearly half her life story.

The eldest Sister of Mercy in the world and believed to be the oldest living religious of any order, died on 25th October at the age of 111 at the Convent of Mercy retirement home in Mobile, Alabama, USA.

But she was no American; in fact she originated from Northern Ireland, leaving her home in County Down in 1929 during the Great Depression to make a new life in the US.

She arrived in Mobile and remained close to the city and the people of Alabama for the rest of her life.

“You wouldn’t be able to count how many people she’s touched,” said Mercy Sister Carolyn Oberkirch, who lived with Sr Donaldson for 24 years. “What a full life she led all these years. What a good religious she was.”

Mercy Sister Marilyn Graf, who knew Sr Donaldson for about 50 years, credited Sr Donaldson’s 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,” Sister Graf told The Catholic Week, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Mobile. “She sat (in the living room) most of the time when she felt good.”

Sr Donaldson did her best to stay young at heart. In her 80s, she attended religious education classes at the University of Notre Dame and also took up watercolor painting. She received a computer for her 100th birthday – pre loaded with games. Her favourite was mahjong, Sr Oberkirch said.

That 100th birthday in 2008 turned out to be quite festive. Sr Donaldson 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,” Sr Oberkirch said.

“I don’t know how she did it,” Sr Oberkirch said. “She never sat down all day. I got worried. But she loved the attention. And she had two dresses – one for the morning and one for the evening.”

Sr Graf said she was known for “being a lady. Very prim and proper.”
Sr Donaldson also was a dedicated reader and was often found reading the news of the day.

“She 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 Graf said.

Go she did in 1929 after Religious Sisters of Mercy from Mobile visited Northern Ireland. Sr Donaldson 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, but 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, Alabama; then short moves to Florida and Baltimore before moving into parish ministry in 1978.

As a teacher, the petite Sister Donaldson was known as being tough, but fair.

“She was formidable. There was just something about her that called for respect,” Sr Oberkirch said.

Although Sister Donaldson lived to 111, she had hardships. Her mother died when Sister Donaldson was an infant and she was put into boarding school by her father. In 1938, Sister Donaldson contracted tuberculosis and spent two years in hospital. “This is a lady that suffered a lot when you think she was out of commission that long,” Sr Graf said. “But she lived to 111. She had weak lungs, but she was amazing.”

Picture: Mercy Sister Mary Aidan Donaldson is seen in this 2018 photo. She died on 25th October 2019, at the age of 111. (CNS photo/courtesy Sister Marilyn Graf).

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