More than 200 people crowded a sweltering church in the Downtown Eastside Friday to remember Sister Elizabeth Kelliher, who died in Graymoor, New York, Aug. 16 of cancer at age 89.
They remembered the Catholic nun as a feisty, passionate and compassionate woman who brought people of all beliefs together to help create a Vancouver that treats its poor with care, and as someone who loved music and worked to preserve the environment.
“One of the sisters told me recently that of our history of the Franciscan Sisters and Friars of the Atonement, she was the only one that was arrested,” said Sister Marianne Rohrer at the memorial at St. Paul’s Catholic Church. “And she was arrested for working for the poor.”
Kelliher came to Vancouver in 1998 from New York where she had served poverty-stricken families for decades and demonstrated for peace and against injustices there and abroad. In Vancouver, she was a tireless advocate for social housing, a living wage and services for children in the neighbourhood.
“Eight years ago I was homeless and living in addiction and Sister Elizabeth was one of the people who helped me at the very beginning of my healing,” said blues singer Dalannah Gail Bowen, choking up. “I can’t tell you how important her kindness and her words were when I needed them so bad.”
Mourners included a former senior city planner, representatives of a society that supports sex trade workers, another that helps people in need of shelter and one that offers children in the Downtown Eastside free music lessons, men who used the Franciscan Sisters’ food service until the nuns left Vancouver in 2011 and members of Jewish, Baptist and Japanese-Canadian communities.
Social activist and Courier contributor Tom Sandborn said after the service that he “sort of fell in love” with Kelliher after she gave a rousing speech at a rally in support of Muslim Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar.
At his 60th birthday party, Sandborn’s sister spotted Kelliher leaning on her cane and asked whether she could bring her a chair.
“‘No. You can get me a glass of wine, I’m busy working the room,’” she told him.
Karen O’Shannacery, executive director of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, said she saw Kelliher lose her cool only once, when Kelliher believed then new mayor Sam Sullivan was dodging commitments to support welfare rates raised and housing improved in the Downtown Eastside.
Pastor Bob Swann of First Baptist Church met Kelliher after he helped open a shelter near St. Paul’s Hospital. He learned from Kelliher how to truly treat everyone with dignity.
“You couldn’t tell who she was talking to… whether they’re homeless or not, or wealthy and have a business, it doesn’t matter. The words are the same, the demeanor is the same,” he said.
During the Woodward’s protest for more affordable housing, many in the encampment caught scabies and those who helped them did, too.
“They live with this stuff. We encounter this stuff maybe once or twice in our lifetime, serving,” Swann said Kelliher reminded everyone.
Swann said the Tuesday night shelter the First Baptist Church started more than 14 years ago near St. Paul’s Hospital has been able to reduce its beds from 36 to 26.
“The numbers on the street who are truly homeless are that much less,” he said. “[But] just as many as ever come for meals.”
Rohrer said at the service that reporters had asked her if Kelliher’s death had left a void.
“There will be no void because we have heard her speak, we know what she said and we are old enough and ugly enough to do it ourselves,” Rohrer said.
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