A young woman’s plan backfired, leading to a life of service for Sister of Mercy Carolyn Coffey

A young Carolyn Coffey had something to prove: Despite years of education by the Sisters of Mercy, she did not feel called to be a religious sister or to attend college.

But to prove to herself that neither was meant for her, the 17-year-old entered the Sisters of Mercy on Sept. 8, 1957.

“However, her plan backfired,” the Sisters of Mercy said.

Carolyn became Sister Carolyn and earned degrees in elementary education and administration. 

She served 25 years as an educator in five states, including Nebraska. Then she dove into the field of housing – studying, volunteering and developing relationships, all to provide affordable homes to people in Omaha and throughout the Midwest.

Sister Carolyn died March 30 after a brief illness. She was 82.

A vigil service was set for 6:30 p.m. on April 5 and a memorial Mass for 10 a.m. on April 6, both at Mercy Villa in Omaha. Burial will be at Resurrection Cemetery, also in Omaha.

Sister Carolyn was born in Wichita, Kansas, and lived her early years in Panama, where her father worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. When she was in grade school, her family moved to Omaha, where she attended the former St. Agnes Elementary School and Mercy High School.

As an educator, she worked in Catholic schools in California, Missouri, Idaho, and in Council Bluffs and Omaha.

In Omaha, she taught fourth grade at the former St. Patrick School from 1962 to 1963 and was principal at St. Margaret Mary School from 1980 to 1984.

She taught first grade at the former Queen of Apostles School in Council Bluffs from 1965 to 1966.

After 25 years in education, Sister Carolyn joined Mercy Housing, helping it grow significantly, the Sisters of Mercy said in a written tribute. Under her direction, regional affiliate Mercy Housing Midwest provided or managed hundreds of affordable homes in Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, the tribute said.

Sister Carolyn built up the organization from almost nothing, beginning in 1988.

“I had no budget, no office, no telephone, no computer,” she had said. “I had a box I put on the dining room table every morning.”

Sister Carolyn built relationships with bankers, lawmakers and anyone who could teach her about housing development and the nonprofit world, including her fellow Sisters of Mercy. She volunteered at the City of Omaha’s Planning Department.

She retired from Mercy Housing in 2002. In retirement she served as a community organizer and helped with clerical support at the College of Saint Mary in Omaha and was an active volunteer.

Sister Carolyn was preceded in death by her parents, Timothy and Maria (Swift) Coffey; sister Madeline Miller and brother-in-law Ira Miller.

Survivors include the Sisters of Mercy; sisters and brothers-in-law Warrine and Bill Young, and Kathleen and George Royce; brother Michael Coffey; and other relatives.

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