She was a historian, a teacher, an author, a poet, a counselor and above all, a Sister of Mercy.
For 56 years, Kathleen O’Brien remained faithful to her vows as a nun and carried out the Lord’s work — mostly in Omaha, but also in Missouri and on the West Coast. On July 5, she died at the age of 74 after a yearlong struggle with cancer.
Funeral services were this week.
O’Brien’s calling to the sisterhood came during her high school years, she said in previous news accounts. In 1962, she joined the Sisters of Mercy, a religious order known for its commitment to helping those in need, especially the ill, women and children. She was a student at Mercy High School at the time, a Catholic school for girls that was founded by the Sisters of Mercy.
In her early years as a nun, she was known as Sister Mary Caelin, the name she was given when she joined the religious order. After the historic changes that occurred in the Catholic Church during the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council, she had the opportunity to go by her given name and was subsequently known as Sister Kay.
During her decades with the Sisters of Mercy, O’Brien accomplished much. She taught primary school in Omaha and elsewhere. She was an instructor and family/child counselor at the College of St. Mary, a counselor at Catholic Charities and a tutor at the Madonna School in Omaha.
One of her enduring legacies is the three-volume history of the Sisters of Mercy of Omaha. The trilogy spans the years 1864-2008 and builds on the work of Sister Cecilia Mary Barry.
Monte Kniffin, archivist for the Sisters of Mercy, said the books were carefully researched and written with a storyteller’s flair.
“I can look up a fact and end up reading a chapter because it’s so interesting,” he said.
Once that yearslong labor of writing the history books was complete, O’Brien turned to a longtime dream — writing children’s books. Her first book, “Ascension Adventures,” has been published, and a second book is at the publisher.
Kniffin said O’Brien carried her concern beyond people and had a soft spot for dogs, plucking hapless pups from the local animal shelter.
“The dogs were usually the ones that got looked over — old and sickly and had been there for months, those are the ones she adopted,” he said.
Among her notable pets was Sparks, a blind and toothless dog who eventually became certified for pet therapy.
Sister Rita Connell recalls how O’Brien paid close attention to social justice issues.
“When she prayed,” Connell said, “she had the Gospel in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”