Hamilton Police Chief Frank Bergen, standing to the right of Ann Konkel, seated, and the service’s mounted unit helped Konkel celebrate her 106th birthday July 14. Photo courtesy of the Konkel family

God, genetics push life journey to 106 years

  • August 13, 2021

When Ann Konkel stepped into the chapel at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton for a Mass commemorating her 106th birthday this summer, she was moved to tears. Due to COVID-19 it was the first time she had attended a church service in over a year.

A devout Catholic and member of the Catholic Women’s League for over 60 years, Konkel has been living in the hospital since incurring a hip injury last April. Up until them, she resided at her Hamilton, Ont., home and regularly attended services and league meetings at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church. At the hospital, pandemic restrictions, including the loss of volunteer helpers, meant the tiny onsite chapel was limited in what services it could provide. When the family was contacted by the hospital chaplain about holding a Mass commemorating another milestone birthday for the centenarian, they were over the moon.

“The priest was quite astounded because when she first went into the chapel she didn’t say anything, she was just looking around with those eyes and I could see tears,” recalled Robin, the wife of Konkel’s only child, Chuck. “It was like she was in a state of shock. We were singing and I noticed the last few lines she mouthed the words. At the end of Mass by herself with no prompting, she crossed herself. It was so special.”

Konkel, who speaks five languages, was responsive and alert in a way the family hadn’t seen her in a while. Despite needing a feeding tube, and experiencing much of the normal physical and cognitive slowing that comes with age, the family reports she has no major medical issues. Furthermore, previously diagnosed with diabetes, she stopped experiencing symptoms at age 100 and the macular degeneration she experienced in one of her eyes has begun to regenerate.

“Something’s going on with this woman,” marvelled Robin with a chuckle. “Let’s say it’s God and genetics.”

Konkel’s long life of faith has drawn her attention from across the country. For her birthday on July 14, Hamilton Chief of Police Frank Bergen brought six mounted horses to the hospital garden in honour of each year she’s lived past a century. She was wheeled down to take in the celebration along with family members and hospital staff who sang her “Happy Birthday. “

Weeks after the celebration, birthday cards continue to pour in. The family has received hundreds this year alone. Last year after someone from Canada Post via Twitter invited people to send in birthday cards, the family received thousands. Some of the most memorable, Robin says, have been messages from inmates and one from a girl who underwent a kidney transplant at 11 years old.

“People write that they just felt that by sending a card, they were participating in a life journey,” said Robin. “It gave them hope and inspiration. People would say how depressed they had been and how sad and that she gave them hope. It’s really unbelievable.”

No stranger to adversity, Konkel was born in the Netherlands in 1915, and lived through the Spanish flu of 1918, the Great Depression and the Second World War. During that time, she met her future husband, Edward. A prisoner of war and concentration camp survivor, he was a decorated member of the Polish resistance. The couple would marry in 1952 before immigrating to Hamilton.

Konkel worked as a high school principal at home but came to Canada and scrubbed floors. Edward worked for a Hamilton steel company. Over time Konkel put herself through school and became an operating room nurse at Henderson Hospital (since renamed Juravinski Hospital). Konkel and her husband lived in a rooming house, buying each room until they owned the whole lot. Edward passed away in 1990.

Robin lives in downtown Toronto and visits her mother-in-law three to four times a week. At one point after hip injury, Konkel was down to 85 pounds but now she’s back up to a healthy 117. Ever active in her senior years, she volunteered at the Good Shepherd until she was 96 years old, vacationed in Europe at age 100 and at 101 celebrated her big day in New York City. She held the keys for the church kitchen for her CWL council until she was 96.

When she broke her hip in early 2020 and was hospitalized with a fractured pelvis, doctors said she would never walk again, remembers Robin. Accompanied by her daughter-in-law at her physiotherapy appointments she has been able to take steps again.

“She’s a remarkable person,” said Robin. “I’m not saying that because she’s my mother-in-law. She’s truly a remarkable person.”

Long-time friend and former CWL council president June Najbor hasn’t been able to visit Konkel much in the hospital because of COVID-19, but for her birthday she was there with a bouquet of flowers. At 85 years old Najbor says through the years she’s looked up to Konkel in many ways like a mentor. Her long life, she says, is a testament to her tenacity and faith.

“She’s very lucky and very happy and a good Catholic and I guess this could be the reason for (her long life),” said Najbor. “She does the right thing, that’s for sure.”

As birthday messages continue to come in, the family hopes Konkel’s life will continue to brighten people’s day in the way that their kindness and well wishes has brightened hers.

“The human spirit is just so magnificent,” said Robin. “We put the cards up in her room. It’s just phenomenal how kind and wonderful people are.”

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