Sister Gabrielle Kocour, OSB, keeps fighting the good fight long past the time she thought she’d ‘put my feet up and relax’
by Katie Hyde
Special to the Leaven
ATCHISON — Sister Gabrielle Kocour, OSB, didn’t answer the phone when I first called her to ask for an interview to write this story.
Being in the business of calling people repeatedly begging for interviews, I just figured she was deliberately avoiding the probing, incessant questions of the fledgling Leaven reporter.
I was wrong.
Sister Gabrielle was on the other line with a nurse who, due to unfortunate circumstances, was living out of her car at the mercy of Kansas weather.
Desperate for food, shelter, and a job, she called the right person.
By the time Sister Gabrielle called me back five minutes later, she had helped the woman schedule a job interview. The long process of getting back on her feet had begun.
Over 65 years of service, Sister Gabrielle has earned a reputation in Atchison and beyond for her dogged commitment to social justice, whether it be internationally — or just next door.
A long two weeks
When Sister Gabrielle announced her decision to enter the monastery after graduating from high school in 1950, her mother looked at her like she was crazy.
“My mom told me I needed to clean up my language or they were going to kick me out,” she said, laughing.
Her classmates were equally astounded.
“All my classmates said to me, ‘You were the last one we thought would do it,’” said Sister Gabrielle.
Though her classmates doubted her, she was passionate about service.
“I wanted a way to serve others,” she said. “There were no Peace Corps or Papal Volunteers. I didn’t want to get married right out of high school and start having kids.”
So she decided to give it two weeks. After that time, she gave it another two weeks. And another. And another.
“I swear I did that for four years,” she said.
And then it was time to make final vows.
“It seems like a long two weeks,” said Sister Gabrielle, smiling.
Working woman on the move
The inscription on a coffee cup that sits on her desk serves as a testament to many years spent in service to others.
“Working woman on the move” it says, reminding her that though she recently turned 80, her work isn’t anywhere near complete.
“The thing that sticks out [about Sister Gabrielle] is her indefatigable energy to pursue a greater social justice for a greater number of people,” said fellow Benedictine Sister Grace Malaney, Sister Gabrielle’s friend and co-worker. “She’s always up for helping others.”
Over the course of 65 years, Sister Gabrielle’s work has spanned nearly every ministry imaginable. She’s worked in Catholic Charities in Tulsa, Okla., and in Kansas City. She developed social outreach programs at a Tulsa parish and developed the Nemaha-Marshall Catholic Education Center in northeastern Kansas.
She has also worked in ministry to AIDS victims, fought for nuclear disarmament, supported an end to human trafficking and worked with domestic violence victims for many years.
“She teaches social justice — mostly by example,” said Sister Barbara McCracken, OSB, who worked with Sister Gabrielle through Catholic Charities.
From her earliest days, when it was far more common for a Benedictine Sister to go into teaching than anything else, Sister Gabrielle had her heart set on working for the poor and disenfranchised.
In those days, she said, “I felt that the Catholic Church was more focused on educating the upper class and middle class,” she said. “I said, ‘I’d like to work among those with a low income. The church needs to focus on that.’”
“I don’t believe in social action just for social action,” she clarified. “I believe in social action coming from our faith.”
Though she is technically “retired” now, Sister Gabrielle’s work — like that of many Benedictine Sisters of her generation — is far from over. She leads book discussions weekly, “lectio divina” (or Scripture meditation) classes on Sunday, and spirituality classes for those attending retreats at the Sophia Center in Atchison. That’s when she’s not driving other Sisters around to doctors’ appointments and other obligations.
“After 50 years in the field, I thought [retirement] would be nice,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can put my feet up and relax.’”
But God had other plans.
Sister Gabrielle’s primary job since retiring has involved providing assistance to individuals and families through a local program called Domestic Violence Emergency Services, or DoVES. Sister Gabrielle has been treasurer of the DoVES board for six years.
Every day, Sister Gabrielle receives calls from people who are homeless, hungry, jobless, or abused.
“Anyone who calls with needs, I work with them and do something to help them,” she said.
There’s the woman who returns every few months looking for shelter, each time with a new name. And the women who come to her door with bruises on their arms and faces. Or the family of three, with one on the way, that needed a place to stay.
“I try to talk to them to get them up on their own two feet,” said Sister Gabrielle, “to make them feel good enough about themselves.
“The more we build them up as persons, the more they will be able to walk away from [drugs and violent situations].”
But Sister Gabrielle’s help goes far beyond a pep talk. Sometimes it means arranging a motel stay for a few nights, helping someone find a job, or sometimes just sharing a meal.
“She’s really changed the world one person at a time,” said friend and coworker Sister Sheila Carroll. “She’s never refused to help the person if she could and if the person had a need. She never refuses.
“In some way, she will somehow reach out to that person, if only it’s to share a meal here at the monastery.”
“She’s just a great person,” said Sister Mary Beth Niehaus, who has worked with Sister Gabrielle over the years. “She is concerned about people who are otherwise not considered in society today — who are lost and fall through the holes in our day-to-day life. They are very much a part of our society, but what do we do to help them?”
You can’t keep a good woman down
When Mount St. Scholastica prioress Sister Anne Shepard jokingly called Sister Gabrielle a hippie for her work in peace and social justice, the older nun had a quick comeback.
“I’m a hippie because I’ve got no hip,” she retorted while rolling through the 200-year-old monastery in an electric wheelchair.
In fact, even to outsiders, said the prioress, “I often introduce Gabrielle as our ‘resident hippie.’
“Ever since I have known her, she has been a bit nonconventional, but she has been a consistent advocate for the poor, the abandoned, the unnoticed.
“She acts out of a spirituality of peacemaking that is solidly grounded in the Gospel and the Rule of St. Benedict.”
There was only one time when the indefatigable nun seemed to be in danger of throwing in the towel.
Sister Gabrielle’s hip was replaced in June 1975. But a staph infection, followed by other complications, required it to be redone in September of the same year. Following even further complications, the surgeon removed her hip altogether in 1980.
It was a very tough time for a woman used to being active 24/7. She was in the hospital for a total of 90 days and, for a while, it appeared as though it might defeat her.
“I was overwhelmed with grief in the hospital,” Sister Gabrielle recalled.
“Then I saw a poster. It said that a human is like an onion,” she said. “You peel off one layer, and then you weep.”
Sister Gabrielle cried her tears.
Then she threw herself into her rehabilitation.
“The Holy Spirit kept me at it,” she said.
Though she has helped thousands of people through her ministry, and continues to deliver emergency services to this day, Sister Gabrielle takes no credit for her work.
“It is not I in ministry,” she said simply, “but the Holy Spirit working within me.”