An Octogenarian Angel You Should Know

Mary Donnelly
Good Causes 3 Comments

Mary Donnelly, known as “Resident Angel Mary D” of New Shoreham, Block Island, is the longest working employee of Rhode Island. In addition to having raised her seven children, for the past 50 plus years Mary has been employed by the Department of Public Health as the island’s State Nurse, and is still working at 83 years old.

Often one of the only licensed medical care providers on Block Island, Mary has not only dutifully tended to the medical needs of her fellow islanders, but she also pays some of their bills. 

Mary is the sole administrator of the Mary D Fund, a fund established in 1979 for the benefit of the all-year round residents of Block Island, and named in her honor. Block Island, like many shore communities sees fiscal ups and downs along with the change of seasons. The Fund, provided by individual donations, helps residents pay for necessities when they just can’t seem to make ends meet. Last year, Mary distributed close to $50,000 to local residents, a welcome and much needed helping hand for many.

Mary’s continued commitment to Block Island and the people of her community has made her somewhat of a well deserving national hero and definitely a woman we should know. This recent article from The Block Island Times, gives us a peek into the life of this modern day “angel”.


Mary Donnelly at workIsland Celebrity Mary D. Goes National
By Judy Tierney, The Block Island Times

“You are an angel,” the sender wrote. Included in the envelope with the short note, written on a scrap of lined yellow paper, was a check for the Mary D. Fund. It was but one of thousands of letters Mary Donnelly has received recently, a portion of them with contributions for the fund. “My dining room table is covered,” said Donnelly, a lilt to her voice indicating that that is quite okay.

The letters began pouring in after an article appeared in The New York Times Magazine about Donnelly. That was quickly followed by a piece on CBS’s “Sunday Morning” show. Then the AARP ran a clip with a picture in one of their publications, and last week NBC news came calling to film Donnelly for their “Making a Difference” segment of the “Nightly News.”

If Oprah were still on the air, surely that show would be next for the octogenarian Donnelly, who continues to work as Block Island’s own home health care registered nurse and volunteer head of the Mary D. Fund. Perhaps, instead, “The View” will want an appearance. Donnelly’s wit has not withered and she can keep up with any of the hosts on that show.

But this week it’s just her hometown paper, the Block Island Times, come calling to catch up with the media blitz that has suddenly surrounded her. We found Mary in her office at the Block Island Medical Center, the same as she usually is on weekdays, except now her cell phone rings a lot and she has a bagful of mail to look through. Just as we begin talking, a call comes in from Victor, the producer of her NBC segment. He was letting her know the piece would run that night. The second call shortly thereafter is from her daughter Liz, asking when the show is going to be on.

Donnelly is sorting through mail; today she has brought only the letters with money she needs to deposit into the Mary D. Fund. Even the bag in which the envelopes are stuffed, a cotton print with a shoulder strap, is from a television viewer – a woman in Utah who makes them as a business. Making light of her sudden celebrity, Donnelly quipped, “It’s still just me… if the Pope calls, I’m not available.”

She is serious, though, about the people who have sent her letters and checks, and deeply moved. “People who don’t have work are sending money,” she said. “I must confess I’ve never sent money to anyone on television.”

The letters have come from nearby states like New York and Massachusetts, but also from Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee. “It is so nice to have someone helping without going to the government,” one fan writes. Another uses a sheet of plain white paper, draws a huge smiley face and signs it only “Doc.” Another, from Tennessee, signs, “Me, Myself and I.” There is one from a man in his early 60s who has suffered a stroke.

All of these people sent donations with their notes. Most send small checks and cash; some send more. From Brooklyn, New York, there is a check for $500.

One woman wrote that her family was so impressed by Donnelly’s story, they decided to send a check. Their son, she explained in her letter, goes to a private Jesuit school. Donnelly in turn is so touched that she is sending the check back to them. “I’m writing to tell them to put the money toward their son’s tuition and consider it a gift from the Mary D. Fund,” she explained.

There are small personal gifts, too. One person sends a book of poetry, another a flag.

The notoriety has even brought a long unseen relative back into the fold, a niece Donnelly hadn’t heard from since she was a little girl. Now a family visit is in the works.

Reflecting on the outpouring of responses the news reports generated, Donnelly says, “I think people were touched because it was a good story and we’ve had so much bad news lately.”

But Donnelly is not one to take all the credit for the Mary D. fund.

“The people are the Mary D. Fund,” she said. “Without people giving, there is no fund… They can think of their neighbors and give, and never be ashamed to come to me for help.”

The recent bounty is a blessing. In this Thanksgiving season, Donnelly is already writing checks for people who are strapped for cash. The morning of this interview, she has paid $3,000 for expenses like medical bills and utilities.

The news stories have also brought her more stories of hardship. She has received requests from people that she can’t help, she says, because the fund is restricted to year-round island residents. Island life is hard, she explains, and some people never make it here. The Mary D. fund tries to help them stay.

Recalling the origins of the fund at the Mens Prayer Breakfast in 1979, Donnelly says she plans to write to Mort Downey, Jr., whose father started it with a check for $1,400. She wonders how Downey, Sr., would feel now if he could see how far the fund has grown.

  • Catherine M.

    What a great post! Mary’s story should show us all that we don’t always have to ‘think big’ to make a big difference…doing little things to help out in our communites can add up to life changing results.

  • AJ

    Mary epitomizes the saying “Charity Begins at Home”! A wonderful lady doing wonderful things for her fellow Block Islanders.

  • Gargouille