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Elizabeth Keliher, a powerful voice for justice on Vancouver's east side, dies

Elizabeth Keliher, a 13-year resident of Vancouver and a much-loved and respected activist for social justice in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, died of cancer last Friday, August 16 in upstate New York.

Keliher had been living at the mother house of the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement, the order she joined as a young working class Irishwoman in 1947. Born in 1923 in Kingston, New York, Keliher worked first in religious education, but later found her deepest vocation caring for the children of poverty-stricken Puerto Rican families in the Bronx.

In a 2005 profile for the Vancouver Courier, Keliher told this reporter that those children and their parents first ignited her passion for peace and social justice activism. She was "frankly shocked" that the machinery of business and government did so little to help them flourish.

She later entered into active partnership with Catholic radicals like the anti-war, anti-poverty firebrand Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement and the Berrigan brothers, two priests who led campaigns of civil disobedience against the war in Vietnam.

She also worked for years with the Saul Alinsky-inspired community organizing group the Industrial Areas Foundation, which linked leaders of faith communities, unions and community groups to win better treatment for the poor and powerless.

After being transferred to a Franciscan convent in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 1998, well past the age most people want to put their feet up and retire, Keliher plunged into action, heading up a soup kitchen that fed more than 500 homeless people a day and serving on the board of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association.

She inspired a local attempt to apply Alinsky principles to Vancouver by organizing a group called the Metro Vancouver Alliance, which will launch its first campaign this fall.

In 2011, when her order closed the Vancouver convent in the face of declining enrolment, Keliher found new opportunities for service in Edmonton, where she was transferred. There, she cared for the children of women in a battered women's shelter until she was forced by poor health to return to New York.

Masses in celebration of her life take place in New York and in Vancouver this week, but those who knew her suspect Keliher would ask anyone who wants to honour her memory to help someone in need, or strike a blow for social justice.

The Vancouver memorial mass for Elizabeth Keliher will be held Friday August 23, 11:30 a.m., at St. Paul's Catholic Church on East Cordova at Dunlevy.

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for the Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net. Keliher has long been a cherished friend of Sandborn's.

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