The Catholic Voice: At 100, John Muir volunteer continues to give back

Michele Jurich

On Tuesday mornings, you'll find Catherine Narberes, a woman of strong faith and indomitable spirit, volunteering at John Muir Medical Center in Concord.

"I look forward to my volunteer days," she said. "I just can't stand the idea of doing nothing 24 hours a day." She is a member of a group of eight volunteers who collate papers and forms. "A nice group of people," she said. Although the medical center does not ask for ages of the volunteers, she is believed to be the only one who is 100-years-old. Across all the John Muir Health programs, there are about 1,600 volunteers.

Narberes began volunteering more than 10 years ago. "My friend was a volunteer," said Narberes, who drove until the age of 97. "I'd pick her up. She was on my way to church."

"I just sat," she recalled. "The next thing I knew, I was a volunteer."

Her association with the sprawling medical center, which has hospitals in both Concord and Walnut Creek, goes back many years.

"My second son was born at the hospital," she said. "When it was a house."

John Muir's roots lie in Concord Hospital, which was, indeed, founded in a house.

Narberes' volunteerism roots run deep as well. Her children were in the inaugural classes at Queen of All Saints School in Concord, which opened in 1948. Her daughter, Kathleen Hieb, recalls her mother baking cupcakes for the students. "They had a group of mothers start a sewing club," Hieb recalled. "They met for 50 years. Now Mother and one other lady are the only ones left."

Daughter Kathleen Hieb drives her mother to her volunteer work at John Muir.

Her daughter reminds her of the volunteer work, not because Narberes has forgotten it, but she just doesn't like to talk about herself. Hieb recalled that her mother used to drive cancer patients to appointments. "They needed a driver," Narberes said. "It would have been selfish of me not to drive them." She also volunteered for a time in the American Cancer Society thrift shop in Walnut Creek, where the jewelry counter was among her favorites. Narberes was born in El Centro in 1911, and grew up in Chico. "I couldn't wait to leave Chico," she said. After a secretarial course at Western School of Business in Sacramento, Narberes — then Catherine Lane — moved to Concord, where she had relatives.

She worked as a secretary at Shell Lab. "We had our little office of five people," she recalled. It was at Shell Lab that she met her future husband, Rene Narberes. "He worked in the lab across the driveway," she said.

They were married at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Martinez in 1936. The wedding picture shows the young June bride and groom. They made their first home in Concord, where his family owned the Concord French Laundry.

"My family was my life," Narberes said. "To me, that was the best."

The Narberes Family had some extraordinary celebrating in 2011. Catherine's 100th birthday; golden wedding anniversaries for Kathleen and her husband Doug Hieb as well as for son Jim and his wife Karen; and for eldest son Brother Frederick Narberes, OP, his golden jubilee in the Dominican Order.

On a table in her neat and sunny studio, stands a photo of Paul Joseph Narberes, her youngest son who passed away at age 7. He had been named by his father.

"I had named the three older ones," Narberes recalled. "No. 4 comes along, and he speaks up."

After elementary school, the three eldest children rode the Greyhound bus to high school, the boys to Saint Mary's College High School in Berkeley, and Hieb to Holy Names High School in Oakland.

The long bus rides, and work at the family's variety store in the El Monte area of Concord, kept them busy.

Rene Narberes died in 1961; "Mrs. Independent," as she called herself, has been a widow for half her life. Her faith has helped sustain her. She is a 75-year member of YLI, becoming a member in 1929.

In her lifetime, she has been, at one time or another, a parishioner at Queen of All Saints, St. Agnes and St. Bonaventure parishes. Her daughter, an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, brings communion to her mother.

"She has great faith in the Blessed Mother," Hieb said, noting that her mother keeps a rosary in every pocket.

Narberes, a resident of Concord Royale, a Berg Community, remains active beyond her volunteer duties. As a member of the Red Hat Society, she's ready for fun. "We put on our red hats and go out to lunch once a month," she said.

In addition to the volunteer days, to which Hieb drives her and has lunch with her, they appreciate their Fridays together, when they go out to lunch and do a little shopping.

"I think you have to have something to look forward to," Narberes said.

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