Photograph by Chuck Stoody (CP)

Photograph by Chuck Stoody (CP)

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Thursday, Sep. 05 2013, 3:52 PM EDT

When Sister Elizabeth Kelliher arrived in Vancouver from New York in 1998 to join her Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement in their Downtown Eastside convent – as nearly 100 others had done since their mission opened in 1926 – she was already in her mid-70s. Her hair was grey and she wore the soft, muted colours and sensible shoes of many modern-day nuns. A bit stooped, she walked with a cane.

During her 13 years at the convent – until the mission permanently closed in 2011 – she helped prepare and distribute more than 1,200 sandwiches every day, five days a week, to those who were hungry in the neighbourhood; she spoke in her gentle way to some of the most overlooked in the city; and she prayed for them in the quietness of the convent that for 85 years occupied one of the oldest buildings in Vancouver.

Just as often, she led or attended meetings for almost every peace and social justice advocacy group in the neighbourhood, raising Cain everywhere from City Hall in Vancouver to Parliament in Ottawa to defend the rights of the city’s unhoused, addicted and afflicted, and to better the lot of its poorest and most marginalized people.

Sister Kelliher died of cancer at the age of 89 on Aug. 16 at the Lurana Health Care Residence beside the Sisters’ Graymoor motherhouse. The mission, 80 kilometres up the Hudson River from New York, began in what was called a “howling wilderness” when founder Lurana White put down roots there in 1898.

At a memorial service held in Vancouver a week after Sister Kelliher’s passing, one of her Franciscan sisters said Sister Kelliher was the only one in her order with the dubious distinction of having been arrested (although her order could not confirm or deny this). The crowd cheered and clapped. The nearly 200 people squeezed into St. Paul’s church on East Cordova Street – wearing everything from veils and vestments to suits and sleeve tattoos – were drawn together to celebrate a woman who saw spiritual devotion, community-based social action and civil disobedience as contented bedfellows.

Sister Kelliher played this same unifying role to people in New York, where she spent more than 35 years helping poor and disenfranchised families.

Journalist Al Giordano remembers the powerful but quiet influence Sister Kelliher, whom he knew since he was a child, wielded in New York. One of his most vivid memories of her is a street scene involving the nun and three police officers who were threatening to arrest homeless veterans if they didn’t close down their unlicensed used book tables. Sister Kelliher showed up wearing the white habit and veil of the day, a wooden crucifix around her neck. She smiled and asked one of the officers how his mother was. According to Mr. Giordano: “All three cops practically genuflected. ‘Oh, Sister,’ they said, ‘so nice to see you. No problem here at all. We were just on our way.’ The officers left the scene and the booksellers got a few months’ reprieve.”

In Vancouver, Sister Kelliher joined her order and dozens of volunteers on East Cordova Street for their weekday ritual of handing out sandwiches to lineups of people outside their convent.

Soon after getting her feet wet in the neighbourhood, she joined the board of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, remaining chair until it disbanded in 2010. She was a founding member of the Metro Vancouver Alliance, which unites and trains low-income groups in how to gain social, political and economic equality.

In the years leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, when single room occupancy hotels on the Downtown Eastside were being rapidly redeveloped, former mayor Sam Sullivan received many an earful from Sister Kelliher. He remembered her as “the elderly nun usually surrounded by young people of the counterculture” whose “voice of authority demanded a response.”

Elizabeth Mary Kelliher was born prematurely on Nov. 9, 1923, in New York, the daughter of Irish emigrants Jeremiah and Elizabeth (O’Flaherty) Kelliher. Her mother died in 1933, leaving her husband – a grocer – and four children to weather the effects of the Depression. As teenagers, Elizabeth and her older sister Jerome joined the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement. Elizabeth entered as an oblate at the age of 12 and took her final vows 10 years later in 1946. Their younger brother Jeremiah joined the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. Sister Kelliher leaves her youngest brother John J. Kellihe (Mary Kate) and their four children.

Long before Sister Kelliher moved to Vancouver, her siblings had made contributions to the province. Jerome ran a daycare and kindergarten for the families of Japanese cannery workers in Steveston, B.C., before the Second World War. She moved with them when they were interned by the Canadian government in 1942, and helped set up a school for 700 children in Greenwood, B.C. Jeremiah, after years of involvement in the American civil-rights struggle, ministered at Saint Joseph the Worker Parish in Richmond, B.C., from 1976 until his death in 1993.

Sister Kelliher began her parish work in education in Hogansburg, N.Y., in 1941. She moved to the parish of St. Jerome’s in the South Bronx in 1957, then to the Lower East Side neighbourhood of New York in 1963.

While teaching in daycare centres and kindergartens, her passion for social justice came alive in neighbourhoods facing rises in substandard accommodation and steep declines in affordable housing – problems similar to those she later encountered on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

She started reading the works of theologian Paul Tillich and the once-radical writings of Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. A mentor was Dorothy Day, the journalist-activist and convert to Catholicism who helped establish the Catholic Worker movement, which advocated the practice of non-violent direct action combined with service to the poor.

Sister Kelliher’s work now began to combine charity with the quest for justice. She co-ordinated efforts to take unscrupulous landlords to task, to slow down the gentrification effects of housing developments and to institute rent controls.

In the mid-sixties, she picketed her own building when her landlord turned off her heat during a rent strike. Over the years, she joined in anti-nuclear, anti-drugs and anti-war protests (for which she was reputedly arrested), and was a regular guest on a pirate radio station held in a Lower East Side squat. She was a vocal advocate of early childhood education and social housing, and helped community groups organize, strategize and build coalitions to create legislative change.

In 1969, Sister Kelliher received a bachelor’s degree in education from Fordham University in the Bronx, followed by a master’s of education from Hunter College in Manhattan in 1974.

For 12 years, she held public office on a New York community school board. As reported in The New York Times in March, 1993, Sister Kelliher, “who supported the multicultural curriculum, abandoned her re-election bid this month after her order, the Sisters of the Atonement, and the Archdiocese called on her to withdraw.”

She continued working in New York until she was transferred to Vancouver in 1998 at the age of 75. Friends say she believed in the saying, “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” so when she landed in the impoverished and politically charged Downtown Eastside, her vocation of service to the disenfranchised redoubled.

Sister Kelliher believed genuine spirituality is built around acts of resistance and did not shy away from using the word “revolution.” At 85, she joined others on a week-long hunger strike relay to draw attention to the need for a national housing strategy.

She received an honorary doctorate from St. Mark’s College, the Catholic theological college at the University of British Columbia, in 2006.

Archbishop of Vancouver Michael Miller called Sister Kelliher a “grand lady” who “did so much to ensure that the Downtown Eastside was not forgotten.”

When the Vancouver mission could no longer be sustained (the average age of the order of 130 nuns is now 79), Sister Kelliher moved to Edmonton to work at a women’s shelter – the Sisters’ last Canadian mission. In 2012, she moved back to the motherhouse.

In a 2005 interview for the Lower East Side Biography Project in New York, she spoke of “doing something to make a difference.”

“I keep fighting for justice because that seems to be what any life needs to do to come to fruition. … We are meant to be people of integrity and courage.”