By Amanda Greene
Religion News Wilmington
Arriving late to Wilmington from Cary Tuesday night didn’t slow Sister Mary Isaac Koenig down one bit.
After receiving the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice – or the highest award the pope gives to laity in the Roman Catholic Church – Sister Isaac was again serving the capacity crowd as director of Tileston Social Outreach at St. Mary Parish Wednesday morning.
More than 35 people were waiting for her at the doors of the ministry when she arrived to serve their needs for temporary food, clothing or utility assistance.
Despite the high honor, Sister Isaac waved away the praise with her characteristic self-effacement.
“It’s still a little embarrassing,” she admitted. “My name is out there, but it’s still about all of the people doing all of the work. It wouldn’t happen without them.” Sister Isaac is speaking of the 150 committed volunteers and more than 50 regular financial supporters that help with the ministry four days a week.
Always leading a group of faithful volunteers, Sister Isaac founded St. Mary’s Social Outreach in 1985, then a medical clinic in 1991 and a program for diabetics in 2004. She also helped start Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard food assistance program and Hadden Hall Apartments, HUD-sponsored housing for low-income senior citizens.
Those Sister Isaac has accepted many awards including the Albert Schweitzer Honors Scholars Award at UNC-Wilmington, this one was the most humbling.
Sister Isaac was among four members of the diocese to receive the award at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Cary Tuesday night. Sixteen others received the Benemerenti Medal, which means “well-deserved,” in recognition of their dedicated service to the church.
It was the largest number of papal recognitions given at one time that the diocese had seen in many years, said Frank Morock, diocesan spokesman.
About 1,000 people crowded into St. Michael’s for the high church vespers service. More than 100 people came in buses and cars from Wilmington for the service.
“I was really touched by the large number of people who came from our area,” Sister Isaac said. “People said it was such a nice spirit there, as if everyone was getting an award.”
Before the service, priests mulled in the foyer helping each other don white vestments. Two thick eggplant purple candles were lit for Advent at the front of the full sanctuary. In front of the first row of seats were 20 papal medals in white boxes with rolled paper proclamations from Pope Benedict XVI.
Bishop Michael Burbidge, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, officiated the ceremony and referenced the honorees’ humility in his homily.
When each got the call about the recognition, “without exception, they all said about the same thing – ‘Bishop, are you sure you have the right number?'” he said. “And second, they said that they are not deserving of it. . . We are so very proud of you.”
Bishop Burbidge noted that the service coincided with the feast day of St. Nicholas, the gift giver in Catholic tradition.
“You too, dear recipients of papal honors, are known for your gift-giving,” he said. “You are gifts to this church, this diocese and to your bishop.”
St. Mary church member Kelly Sanderson didn’t know what to expect from the service.
“I actually feel honored I was able to come,” she said during a tent reception afterward. “She’s an institution.”