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BY ALBERT AMATEAU | Sister Elizabeth Kelliher, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement and a pioneer community organizer on the Lower East Side for more than 40 years, and for 13 years more recently in Vancouver, British Columbia, died Aug. 16 at the Lurana Health Care Residence of the St. Francis Convent in Garrison, N.Y. She was 89.
Sister Elizabeth ran daycare centers in the Bronx, rent strikes in the East Village, soup kitchens on the Lower East Side and, after her 1998 transfer (her friends called it “banishment”) to Vancouver, continued her radical social justice activities there.
Ailing, she returned to the Franciscan Convent in Garrison, N.Y., last year.
In a 2005 interview with Penny Arcade, a performance artist and co-founder of the Lower East Side Biography Project, Sister Elizabeth recalled her experience as a nun in the 1950s working with teenagers in Massena, N.Y., on the St. Lawrence River, and then in the Bronx organizing daycare centers.
During a life dedicated to social justice and peace, she worked with such luminaries as Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker, and peace activist Reverend Daniel Berrigan.
On the Lower East Side, she was involved with GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side) and served on its board of directors. She was elected repeatedly to the local community school board and served as its president in the early 1990s.
The school board elections, open to district residents as well as to noncitizens who were parents of children in district schools, got Sister Elizabeth into trouble at one point when she was accused of irregularities involving fraudulent petition signatures. The accusations did not end in any criminal charges.
Al Giordano, a journalist and editor of Narco News, which tracks the “War on Drugs,” recalled his childhood in the East Village where Sister Elizabeth was an important influence on his family and on the neighborhood.
“My mom met her in the 1950s in the Bronx at a daycare center at St. Jerome’s Church,” Giordano said in an e-mail to The Villager. “When in the mid-1960s she organized a rent strike in her building on E. Fifth St. [some say it was the first rent strike in the Lower East Side], she put a sign in my hands and had me march around in a picket in front of the building. A huge ‘RENT STRIKE’ banner was rolled out the window of her apartment and reached two floors down,” Giordano wrote.
“As a teen she had me come to her daycare center on Broome St., called The Little Star of Broome, to play guitar and perform for the kids,” he continued. “When I went to Harlem to recruit a coalition of black construction workers to support an anti-nuclear march, Sister Elizabeth coached me on what she had learned about coalition building, and she showed up to give moral support,” Giordano wrote.
Giordano moved to New England for a while and then returned to New York.
“I found that my old friend Sister Elizabeth was by then one of the most powerful people in the neighborhood,” he recalled.
He claimed that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was extremely concerned about Sister Elizabeth’s political influence.
“He redistricted his own district to put a sliver of E. Fifth St. — between First and Second Aves. where she lived — into another legislator’s district,” Giordano said of Silver.
“I cannot think of a single Lower East Side resident who was more loved by every sector of neighborhood society,” Giordano added.
He said he last saw Sister Elizabeth this past May when he visited her at the Graymoor convent in Garrison.
In her 2005 interview with Penny Arcade and Steve Zehentner, a co-founder of the Lower East Side Biography Project, Sister Elizabeth recalled her assignment to the Spellman Center on E. Second St. where she met families struggling with housing problems. She also recalled the early days of M.F.Y. (Mobilization for Youth, an offshoot of the federal War on Poverty) and of Project Head Start, the preschool program.
Sister Elizabeth said her social activism was rooted in her religious calling. Franciscans, she said, were devoted to the poor, “and to peace and justice — peace, not at any price, but as long as it’s based on justice. Because what is right is right, and of course, that is also based on the fact that we truly believe that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.”
Born Nov. 9, 1923, to Elizabeth O’Flaherty and Jeremiah Kelliher in New York, she joined the Sisters of the Atonement in July 1936, took her first vows in June 1941 and her final vows in August 1946. Her mother, who had a profound influence on her, died when she was 18.
A brother, the Reverend Jeremiah Kelliher, and a sister, Sister Jerome Kelliher, of the Atonement order, predeceased her. A brother, John J. Kelliher, his wife and their four children survive.
A funeral Mass was held at the convent in Garrison on Aug. 22 and burial was in the Sisters’ cemetery at Graymoor. A memorial Mass was held Aug. 23 at St. Paul’s Church, Vancouver, B.C.