Sister Mary Isaac Jogues Koenig, S.U.,
Arts '60, Grad '68
“I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in.”
Add clothing, household goods, medical care and financial assistance to the list, and those words, from the Gospel of Matthew, could easily be read as a mission statement for Sister Mary Isaac Koenig. Sister Isaac, as she is known, has been providing all of the above to the poor of Wilmington, N.C., for nearly 25 years.
With the help and inspiration of her fellow parishioners at St. Mary Catholic Church, Sister Isaac began in 1985 what came to be known as the St. Mary Social Outreach Program, serving the needy from downtown Wilmington and surrounding cities. A few years later, at the urging of doctors within the parish, she added a medical clinic, now known as the Tileston Clinic, to provide health care for the working poor.
Sister Isaac also helped spur the development of HUD-sponsored low-income housing for senior citizens in her area, the Hadden Hall Apartments, and launched a food pantry, Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, which provides food for thousands of individuals and families.
Today the St. Mary-Tileston Outreach Center cares for some 10,000 people per year. More than 150 volunteers are involved in collecting and distributing food, cleaning and folding donated clothing, and in many other ways assisting the needy in their midst. The Tileston Clinic has become one of the area’s largest self-supporting, non-profit clinics dedicated to serving the poor. It’s also, perhaps, the only medical clinic to treat its patients to volunteer-prepared sandwiches while they await their appointments.
One of Sister Isaac’s newer initiatives is a program to meet the dietary needs of people suffering from diabetes. About 100 diabetics per month receive the fresh meat, fruits and vegetables necessary to keep the disease under control.
Though her efforts reach a lot of people, Sister Isaac doesn’t think in terms of numbers. For her, it’s more about hospitality and connecting on a truly personal basis. Tellingly, she doesn’t refer to those she helps as clients. She calls them guests.
“Our whole desire is to help them feel good about themselves,” she says.
One very important part of her job is simply listening — to many tales of woe, yes, but also to stories of ingenuity and pluck in the face of adversity. She knows how much courage it takes to ask for help and honors that by treating the many guests she serves daily with respect and dignity.
Sister Isaac also assists with special occasions by providing baskets of food for Thanksgiving and baskets of food and gifts for Christmas.
For her work, Sister Isaac has received the North Carolina’s Human Relations Award, the Albert Schweitzer Honors Scholar Award from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and a humanitarian award from the Unitarian Church, among others.