In Memory: Sister Kate Gibney

From 1972 to 1990, a fun-loving nun was the heart and soul of Rollins College.

Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections

Early one morning—right about the time he should have been in class—a certain undergrad in precarious academic standing awoke to the ring of his phone. 
“Hey, Billy,” a sultry voice whispered on the other line. “I’m Rebecca. The girl you met at the party last night. Mind if I come over?”

Of course, there was only one answer to that question.

A few minutes later, the young man was surprised to find a nun—the same one he had been dodging for weeks—knocking on his door. It was Sister Kate Gibney ’79MA, ’81MS, whose job at the College often entailed finding creative ways to keep students on track.

She had found the perfect ploy to talk sense into the stubborn scholar.

“Sister Kate was an unforgettable character and certainly a very different type of nun,” says Patrick J. Powers, former dean of Knowles Memorial Chapel. “She went outside the lines and did whatever she had to do for students, holding them accountable in a loving way.”

Gibney, who spent nearly two decades at Rollins as a campus minister, academic adviser, counselor, and activist, died November 27 at Catholic Memorial Home in her native Fall River, Massachusetts. She was 89.

The Pursuit of Knowledge

Sister Kate Gibney at the 1990 Rollins College commencement ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) Sister Kate Gibney at the 1990 Rollins College commencement ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) In 1972, Gibney came to campus as a 46 year old studying for a master’s in counseling (she would later earn a master’s in criminal justice from Rollins as well). Two years prior, she had co-founded the Center for Campus Ministry, which served UCF, Florida Institute of Technology, and Rollins.

A member of the Holy Union Sisters since 18, Gibney was immersed in academia her entire career. In fact, she already held a bachelor’s in education from Providence Catholic Teachers College, a master’s in speech and drama from Catholic University, a professional ministerial certification from Harvard, and several years of eighth-grade teaching experience at Holy Union schools in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.

In her early days at Rollins, Gibney was a dormitory resident assistant who helped lead the campus ministry team and had oversight of the College’s Catholic students. Throughout the ’70s, she expanded Rollins’ outreach efforts—particularly in the areas of social programming, personal counseling, faith-based activities, and student-led volunteerism.

From 1979 until her retirement in 1990, Gibney served as assistant to the dean of the College for Academic Advising (now known as Student Affairs). Today, a needs-based scholarship bears her name.

“She was such a presence on campus,” says former president Thad Seymour. “Everyone who knew her loved her. If there’s any single person who planted the seed for Rollins’ commitment to service, it was Sister Kate. She was truly the heart and soul of Rollins College.”

A Moral Compass and Strong Force

Steven Neilson, who spent 40 years at Rollins and was dean of Student Affairs until retiring in 2013, says times were quite different in Gibney’s era. In those days, the College provided far fewer resources for students in areas like early-warning academic detection, personal counseling, and social engagement.

Gibney, he says, filled that need almost singlehandedly through her strength of personality and magnetic ability to make lasting connections.

“She probably saved hundreds of students over her tenure here and helped them be successful graduates who went on to lead happy, productive lives,” says Neilson, who lauded Gibney’s “apolitical” approach to conflict resolution. “She provided a moral compass to a lot of people, and she was a strong force during a period when the institution was in transition and growing.”

Powers especially loved Gibney’s unapologetic Boston twang, sharp Irish wit, and staunch determination to get things done—traits that helped her deal frankly, but compassionately, with those who needed her most.

“At the base of her engagement with students was always her religious commitment,” Powers says. “She was a nun first and foremost in her heart. She said prayers regularly, went to church every day, and built her life on faith. What made her unique is, she was very much a motherly figure, but at the same time she was the life of the party. She was kind of a rebel.”

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Editor’s note: Over the years, stories about Sister Kate Gibney have become embedded in the fabric of life at Rollins College. Learn more about her legacy on campus by exploring these stories:

Jay Werba ’86 describes how Sister Kate’s miraculous advice led to his “divine graduation.” Read the story.

Upon her retirement in 1990, the Rollins Alumni Record published “Goodbye, Rollins! Hello, World!” Read the story.

Read memories from her contemporaries, and leave yours too, on our tribute page.

Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections