Obituary: Sister Kathleen Healy

in by

Sister Kathleen Healy
January 13, 1926 – April 21, 2018

Longtime Potrero Hill resident and former pastoral associate at Saint Teresa Parish, Sister Kathleen Healy, passed away at the Presentation Motherhouse on April 21, 2018. She was 92. A funeral Mass was celebrated at Saint Teresa of Avila Catholic Church last month; she was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma.

Sister Kathleen, a guitar-playing, cheerful, energetic nun and activist, taught for 24 years in San Francisco Catholic schools. She educated students at St. Anne’s School, in the Inner Sunset, from 1946 to 1947; and at St. Agnes School, in Haight-Ashbury, from 1947 to 1949, 1954 to 1955, and as principal from 1962 to 1968. She was St. Teresa’s School principal from 1967 to 1974, when the school closed due to declining enrollment. Sister Kathleen taught at Catholic schools in San Jose and Los Angeles as well.

After St. Teresa’s School closed, Father Peter J. Sammon of St. Teresa’s Parish asked Sister Kathleen to serve as a full-time pastoral associate. She did so for 31 years, until 2005.

In 1979, Sister Kathleen became involved with the Bay Area Organizing Committee (BAOC), a network of religious institutions and nonprofit organizations. “Through BAOC, we were able to raise wages and obtain health benefits for City workers,” said Sister Kathleen at the time.

Sister Kathleen was an important figure in the Sanctuary Movement. Between 1979 and 1983, she strongly advocated on behalf of Guatemalan and El Salvadoran refugees fleeing persecution, torture, and death who came to the United States seeking a safe haven. Sister Kathleen learned Spanish to work with immigrants and traveled with several delegations to El Salvador and Guatemala to support affected individuals.

“These delegations were unforgettable experiences of God working in people and living with three different refugees in our convent over a period of seven years was a happy growth experience,” said Sister Kathleen at the time.  

Sister Kathleen’s contributions were part of a larger effort by a coalition of churches and synagogues to encourage the City and County of San Francisco to support Central American refugees. In 1984, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution that declared San Francisco a city of refuge, which was turned into an ordinance in 1989. The Sanctuary City Ordinance generally prohibits municipal employees from using municipal funds or resources to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement enforce federal immigration law unless assistance is required by federal or state law.

Sister Kathleen earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1956 and a Master of Arts (MA) in 1963, both in education, through the University of San Francisco. She received a MA in Theology in 1974 through Immaculate Heart College, Los Angeles, and a Doctorate in Ministry in 1980 from the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley.

Sister Kathleen was baptized shortly after she was born at Saint Monica Church in the outer Richmond. She joined the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVM) on July 2, 1943. The Presentation Sisters is an international order of Roman Catholic women that follows the teachings of Venerable Honora, or Nano, Nagle, an Irish educator and minister who gave comfort to the poor and disadvantaged. Sister Kathleen was inspired by Nagle’s work caring for those on the margins of society. “A growing motivation in my life was a desire to initiate change for the poor and oppressed. As principal, I welcomed low-income children to our school, trying to be sensitive to their needs, to provide tutoring and counseling for them,” said Sister Kathleen.

At St. Teresa’s School, Sister Kathleen pioneered the then-innovative concept of a “school without walls.” “There were two floors.  The first floor was an open space which held grades one through three. If a child in the first grade was at a second-grade reading level, he or she was easily accommodated and joined the students in the second grade. The second-floor open space held grades four through eight,” said Sister Lucia Lodolo.

Sister Lucia ministered and lived with Sister Kathleen.  She also taught at St. Teresa’s School, and served as a pastoral associate for St. Teresa’s Parish from 1974 to 2005. Sister Lucia recalled Sister Kathleen teaching students how to use computers at St. Teresa’s School long before the concept became popular and “they (the computers) were huge.”

Sister Lucia described her friend as a social justice advocate determined to help those in need. As Sister Kathleen grew older, “she still had the desire but not the physical stamina,” said Sister Lucia.

Sandra Seibel, a St. Teresa’s parishioner, said she first met Sister Kathleen on Easter Sunday of 1979. “I wasn’t even a Catholic then. It was the closest church,” said Seibel. Seibel was impressed by Father Sammon’s speech on the humanitarian crisis in Central America, and became involved in parish work to aid Central American refugees. “One thing I will say about Sister Kathleen is that if you showed up more than once, she was ready to put you to work,” said Seibel.

Seibel said that Sister Kathleen helped her convert to Catholicism, and prepared her to baptize her newborn son. “Then she basically continued to give me one assignment after another. I got a fairly wide experience within parish work,” said Seibel.

Seibel often worked with Sister Kathleen to educate other Catholic parishes and churches about the Sanctuary Movement. “She really felt this was a faith-based program. This was not political…I would say everything that Sister Kathleen involved herself in, whether it was local justice issues, the Sanctuary Movement, work at St. Anthony’s, community organizing…was forged in her faith…We never forgot that the reason that we were in that room…was based on our Christian faith…our understanding that this was a call that God was asking us to be supportive of people who were underserved and even persecuted,” said Seibel.

Rose Marie Ostler, another St. Teresa’s parishioner, said she felt that Sister Kathleen’s work was aided by changes made in the Second Vatican Council. The council, known informally as Vatican II, lasted from 1962 to 1965 and addressed relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. “Women could be involved. Peter asked me to be a Eucharistic Minister…and a lector. Kathleen was involved and so was Lucia,” said Ostler.

A Eucharistic Minister is a layperson who assists the priest in administering communion. A lector is a reader assigned to read the Bible at public worship.

“Kathleen was instrumental in getting me involved in a lot of the activities,” said Ostler. “I served on almost every committee except the liturgy…The main thing was when we started with community organizing. We were members of the San Francisco Organizing Project and later on with the BAOC. I worked a lot with Kathleen on that…In regards to social justice, she was very concerned about the homeless. We did a lot of talking and working on that.”

According to Ostler, Sister Kathleen made an appointment with then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s office. “She asked me to go along. We went and talked to one of the aides. She was instrumental in pushing for help with pretty much the same (concerns with the homeless) that are going on now,” said Ostler.

Ostler said that although little came of the meeting, Sister Kathleen kept trying. She also advocated for funds and space to teach new mothers at the Potrero Annex-Terrace housing complex how to use computers. “What always amazed me about Kathleen was that (she) never gave up. Never,” said Ostler.

In 2006, Sister Kathleen became a founding member of The Lantern Center for Hospitality and Education, a literacy facility serving women and child immigrants. That same year she started a ministry in social services a Saint Anthony Foundation, which offers meals, health care, clothing, addiction recovery and training, and technology access to individuals in need.

Sister Ma˘ire Sullivan, the Lantern Center’s current director, said Sister Kathleen believed in the power of small groups of study partners and friends to create a foundation for the Catholic faith. This belief led Sister Kathleen to start the Lantern Center, with assistance from Sister Ma˘ire and Sister Lucia. “Kathleen stayed a long time until she couldn’t do it anymore. That’s why the students have been devastated. I would describe her as someone who was a leader without pushing herself forward,” said Sister Ma˘ire.

Marie O’Connor, individual volunteer coordinator at St. Anthony’s, described Sister Kathleen as dedicated, humble, reliable, and always encouraging.  “She and Sister Lucia immediately became a fixture. They were part of a program to offer coffee and doughnuts in the older residential hotels in the neighborhood. The idea was that they would be there to support people who were otherwise isolated. She also volunteered at the social work center, an information and referral desk in the dining hall,” said O’Connor.

O’Connor said Sister Kathleen starting volunteering at St. Anthony’s when she was 80 and continued to do so for almost 12 years. “What an honor for all of us to have known her. She was a joy to be around. I didn’t have to explain to her St. Anthony’s commitment to recognizing the dignity of every person regardless of their circumstances. She just knew. People felt immensely accepted and comfortable in her presence. Sister Kathleen’s smiles were well-known. But it wasn’t just a smile. It was an understanding that matched the person’s need in the moment,” said O’Connor.

Seibel said Sister Kathleen demonstrated vitality and moral strength the entire time she knew her. Even as she got older, she didn’t stop giving to others. “She was one of those people, if you’re going to be alive, you’re going to live,” said Seibel.

O’Connor agreed that Sister Kathleen knew how to have fun and share that with others. “She also had emotional and spiritual maturity and life experience. She helped the City still deserve the name San Francisco,” said O’Connor.

Sister Kathleen was predeceased by her parents, William and Hanna Healy, and her sisters, Nancy Healy, Doreen Healy, Maryann Healy, and Mrs. Honora Lowe.