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GRAND RAPIDS — For Sister Roberta Hefferan, there was no greater joy in life than helping another person.

She helped a good many in her 55 years as a Dominican Sister, from serving as a social service counselor to providing food, clothing and housing to the needy neighbors of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church.

“She loved people, and she loved helping people,” said her brother, Larry Hefferan of Grand Rapids. “She was always that way.”

Sister Roberta — known to friends, family and parishioners as “Sister Bert” — died Wednesday. She was 84.

The diminutive sister with the hearty Irish laugh was well-loved for her down-to-earth, fun-loving spirit, and honored by many for her generous service to the community. Whether tending her garden, playing her fiddle or hauling a van full of produce to a food pantry, Sister Roberta relished life and sharing it with others.

“I love it, just meeting the needs of people, (seeing) how God provides,” Sister Roberta said in a 2009 Press story. “When people get in that habit of sharing what they have, it’s enough for everybody.”

Sister Roberta ran the Food and Clothing Center across from St. Alphonsus, 224 Carrier St. NE, and helped found Catherine’s Health Center, a nonprofit parish clinic. She also served on the boards of the Creston Neighborhood Association and New Development Corp., a nonprofit housing agency, and was the longtime secretary of Our Hope, an addiction treatment program.

She was a gentle dynamo at St. Alphonsus, her home parish, where she visited the sick, helped seniors fill out tax forms and prepared holiday baskets.

“Service to others was living out the gospel for Roberta,” said Helen Lehman, executive director of New Development. “The woman was never afraid to lead.

“We were all blessed to have her in our life,” added Lehman, who named her son, Dominic Robert, after her. “She’s meant so much to St. Alphonsus and to this neighborhood.”

Sister Roberta was the third of nine children of Daniel and Pauline Hefferan, who raised their family a block from the church. From them she learned the love of God and the joy of music. She played fiddle with them as a child and played with a family band late in life.

After delivering supplies for Middleton’s Drug Store while attending Catholic Central High School, she worked for a car parts factory and as a secretary at St. Alphonsus before entering the Grand Rapids Dominicans in 1955.

Sister Roberta earned a bachelor’s degree from Aquinas College and a master’s in social work from the Catholic University of America. She worked as a counselor for Catholic Social Services, where she oversaw child welfare cases and offered coffee to the homeless near her Bridge Street office. She returned to St. Alphonsus in 1984 as pastoral minister for Christian Social Concerns, from which she retired in 2009.

Her work was recognized with several awards, including the Unsung Hero Award from the Grand Rapids Jaycees and the Bishop Haas Award from the Grand Rapids Catholic Diocese. The Creston Neighborhood Association named a community activist award after her.

“She just always had a joy in helping people,” said Sister Bernadette Mooney, a close friend. “She didn’t care who it was. She was a giving person all the way.”

St. Alphonsus will hold a Mass of Christian burial at 10 a.m. Saturday following a vigil at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The Dominican Chapel at Marywood will host a remembrance prayer service at 7 p.m. Thursday.

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