Benedictine Sister Alice O’Brien, 75, who had been a member of the former Our Lady of Peace Monastery in Columbia, died on Oct. 17 in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
She had been a member of St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith since 2008.
The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated privately due to COVID-19, with Father Les Farley, chaplain of St. Scholastica Monastery, presiding.
Burial was in the monastery cemetery, next to her sister, the late Benedictine Sister Rose Maria Birkenfeld, and the late Benedictine Sister Rose Ashour, both of whom had lived in community with Sr. Alice in Columbia and Fort Smith.
“She was practical, generous and open-minded and much loved by all who had the good fortune to know her,” recalled Benedictine Sister Barbara Bock, who lived in community with Sr. Alice in Columbia and Fort Smith and knew her for many years before that.
Alice was born on March 9, 1945 in Amarillo, Texas, the third of five children born to John and Doris (Moore) Birkenfeld.
The family practiced their Catholic faith devoutly.
Alice attended Catholic grade school and high school.
That “enabled me to attend daily Mass as well as participate in regular liturgical celebrations,” she recalled in a 2017 video profile. “... The teaching gave me a solid foundation in my faith, along with the good example of my parents.”
Her sister, Sr. Rose Maria, entered religious life at St. Scholastica when Alice was 5.
Alice enjoyed visiting the monastery and in eighth grade began thinking about becoming a sister.
Her teacher, a Benedictine, advised her to finish college before discerning a call to religious life.
Wife and mother
Alice graduated in 1963, the year she met her husband. They fell in love and got married.
She was 17, and he was 19 and serving in the Air Force.
They had six children.
It was a difficult marriage and ended in divorce in 1984.
“I know that God was in charge of all these events, but it was difficult to see that at the time,” she recalled in 2017.
She studied nursing while raising her children, eventually becoming a registered nurse and completing a bachelor’s degree in heath arts from St. Francis College in Joliet, Illinois.
“It was a struggle, and there were times I didn’t go to Mass because part of me felt I did not belong there because I was divorced,” she recalled.
Called to community
Alice worked for many years as a registered nurse and was active in St. Thomas Parish in Elkhart, Indiana.
Her sister and her pastor encouraged her to seek an annulment — a declaration, based on evidence, that her marriage was not a valid sacramental union.
An annulment would free her to marry in the Church.
She became more involved in pro-life work, in her parish’s Rosary society, and teaching religious education.
She began considering religious life again after her children were grown and she received an annulment.
She began visiting Sr. Rose Maria frequently and getting to know the rest of the Our Lady of Peace community.
“In my discernment, I investigated more communities, but the Benedictine values and charism had always attracted me,” Sr. Alice recalled in 2017.
“I liked the ministries the sisters were involved in, the prayer life and the value of community,” she said.
She was accepted as a Benedictine affiliate at Our Lady of Peace in 1999 and became a postulant on Aug. 3, 2000.
She brought with her an eagerness to learn, a love of prayer, a willingness to participate actively in community life, a love of gardening and an array of life experiences.
“I also brought a love of people and the Benedictine way of life,” she recalled.
“Freedom to grow”
While in Columbia, Sr. Alice served as vocation director and worked at a nursing home.
Sr. Rose Maria taught her courses in Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Sr. Alice became a novice in 2001 and made her temporary profession on Aug. 15, 2003.
She appreciated life in community, which reminded her of growing up in a large family — “with love and concern, as well as struggles.”
She saiad one of her favorite aspects of monastic life was “the freedom to grow spiritually wherever God is calling me, and the ability to learn new things.”
On March 17, 2008, she transferred to St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith and renewed her temporary profession on Aug. 15 of that year.
Her favorite volunteer activities were with the pro-life movement, and she loved her work as a nurse.
She professed final vows on June 24, 2011.
“All six of her children and I can’t even tell you how many grandchildren were at the religious profession,” Sr. Rose Maria, who died in 2017, recalled in 2011. “They came from all over. Of course, the grandchildren delight in telling people that their grandmother is a nun!”
Prayer and work
In the monastic community in Fort Smith, Sr. Alice served as an assistant in the infirmary, as a spiritual director, as assistant vocation director and as a formation director.
She also offered her talents as a hairstylist.
She took classes through the Little Rock School of Theology and volunteered at Heart to Heart Pregnancy Support Center in Fort Smith.
She was well known for her Santa’s Coffee Cake, candy cane cookies and crocheted angels and tops for hand towels, which were all popular items at the monastery’s annual bake sale.
Sr. Alice balanced well her love and devotion for her children and grandchildren with her faithful commitment to her monastic duties as a member of the St. Scholastica community.
“Our monastic life is a quiet and holy one, a very rewarding life,” she stated. “It consists of prayer and work.”
Sr. Barbara met Sr. Alice while she was in high school in Amarillo and teaching in the parish religious education program.
“I recognized her zest and good zeal in the love for God, Church, family, religious community and friends, and for promoting life, especially for the unborn,” said Sr. Barbara.
“She strived to get a good education in theology, nursing, and other areas and used her learning in her work and devoted care of others,” she added.
Sr. Alice moved to the monastery infirmary when her health declined and then to Chapel Ridge Health and Rehab.
Preceding her in death were her former husband Daniel O’Brien; a son, Daniel; a brother, Charles Birkenfeld; and a sister, Sr. Rose Maria.
Surviving are three sons, Stephen, Christopher and Andy (Charda) O’Brien; two daughters, Tamara and Cynthia O’Brien; a daughter-in-law, Alene; her beloved grandchildren; brothers, Martin (Loretta) and Howard (Annette) Birkenfeld; nieces and nephews and members of her Benedictine Community.
The 2017 video titled “Sr. Alice O’Brien Vocation Story” can be found at