Former Downtown Eastside saviour Sister Elizabeth Kelliher dies

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One of the Downtown Eastside's most beloved advocates has died.

Sister Elizabeth Kelliher, an 89-year-old Catholic social activist, passed away on Friday (August 16) at Lurana Health Care Residence of St. Francis Convent in Garrison, New York.

Kelliher operated a soup kitchen serving up to 500 people a day during her time in Vancouver. In 2009, she went without food for a week as part of a homelessness hunger strike relay.

According to a post on NDP MLA Jenny Kwan's website, Kelliher said she didn't even feel hungry during the week when she only consumed liquids.

As chair of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association board in 2009, Kelliher delivered an impassioned speech on child poverty to a parliamentary committee.

"Last year a father came to our door to beg for help," she told MPs. "He had an $18-an-hour job and lived in a very small one-bedroom apartment with his wife and infant daughter and 15-year-old son. His rent, the very cheapest he could find, was $1,300 a month. With all his other expenses, he was finding it hard to buy enough food."

She noted that financial pressure and lack of space for poor families "take a very high toll on their ability to feel secure".

"The children, especially the youngest, feel the pressure, and believe they are part of the problem," Kelliher stated. "I have heard a child, four years old, say, 'If only I were died, everything would be okay.' The child committed suicide when he was 15."

She highlighted the links between child poverty and mental problems.

"Besides building social housing with some two- or three-bedroom units, I would suggest getting a living wage bill," she added. "People cannot live on the pittance, certainly, that the minimum wage requires. Some, especially the immigrants, just to get something to do—some work, some money—have been known to work for $5 an hour. They work long hours, with no overtime and no benefits."

The Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement left Vancouver in 2011 after 85 years of service because they didn't have sufficient members to continue serving the city.

Kelliher came to Vancouver after spending 35 years helping the poor in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Her funeral mass and burial are scheduled on Thursday (August 22) at the Motherhouse chapel in Graymoor, which is in Garrison. There are plans for a memorial service in Vancouver, but details haven't been finalized.

Comments (4) Add New Comment
Judy Barker
Sister Elizabeth loved people and worked at serving others...played organ at St. Paul's DTES...RIP.
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Sid Tan
Was fortunate to meet and work with heroes and heroines such as Sister Elizabeth... Rest in Peace ...

Video originally broadcast on cable community television July 2008 on ACCESS Community TV.

ACCESS begat FearlessTV with W2 and DTES-CAN via the Get Your Message Out! workshops at Carnegie Community Centre in spring of 2007...

http://youtu.be/EMgSw-qfiT8
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Libby Davies, MP - Vancouver East
Sister Elizabeth was a really special person and much loved in the Downtown Eastside. I always liked her wry wit and solid sense of community. She'd always ask me, when we were at rallies or demos together, "when do you think the federal government will start building social housing?". And, I'd always sigh and say, "we have to keep pushing for it". Her optimism and belief that people could do good things together was wondderful. She invested much time and engery and good will in DERA and countless community campaigns. She worked with people as an equal and undertood the struggle for decent housing, incomes and human dignity. I never heard her complain and she never took anything for herself. She only smiled and said we had to keep working for these basic rights.
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Laureen McMahon
Sister Elizabeth was a truly heroic figure both here in Vancouver for a decade and in her native New York State where she pioneered daycare centres for poor families. She will be truly missed by everyone who knew her both inside the Catholic community and in the wider community where she had legions of friends and fellow social justice advocates. RIP dear Sister.
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