Sister Stephana O'Leary, an activist nun with a gentle spirit who helped troubled youths as a social worker in the Sacramento diocese for more than 50 years, died Thursday of stroke-related complications. She was 89.
Sister O'Leary arrived in Sacramento in 1953 with a calling to serve people as a member of the Sisters of Social Service. A licensed clinical social worker, she reached out to young people in need as clinical director of the Stanford Home for Children.
She fostered a sense of belonging and structure that ensured "every kid had the basics including a new pair of slippers, pajamas and a bathrobe at Christmas," former Stanford Home administrator Bill Davis said. Besides living with youngsters at the Stanford Mansion at Eighth and N streets, she visited the agency's group homes in the community after hours and on weekends to encourage staff workers and residents.
"She was an amazing clinician," former Stanford Home executive assistant Donna Norris said. "But she had so many gifts. She was so compassionate and loving with the staff and the kids."
As Stanford Home residents reached age 18, Sister O'Leary worried that many youngsters would fall through the cracks after leaving foster care. With Sister Mary Anne Bonpane, she co-founded WIND Youth Services in 1994 as an emergency shelter and support program to help homeless young people escape life on the street.
The two nuns left WIND after each was diagnosed with cancer. But they agreed to return after staff members called to say the center was in danger of shutting down.
"We said, 'We have no idea how we'll pay you, but we'll have to play it by ear,' " Sister O'Leary recalled in 2005. "We looked at each other and said, 'If this is God's will, it will succeed.' "
Stephana O'Leary was born in Kansas City, Kan., in 1922. She graduated from College of St. Teresa in Kansas City, Mo., and earned a master's degree in social work from Catholic University in Washington. She joined the Sisters of Social Service in 1947 and took her vows as a nun in 1950.
Earlier in her career, she assisted parents with adoptions and foster care as director of Catholic Social Services in Sacramento and Solano County. She also helped train new deacons and seminarians in the Sacramento diocese.
In 2006, she moved to her religious order's mother house in Encino, where she died last week.
A diminutive, soft-spoken woman with a warm smile, Sister O'Leary was an avid basketball fan. She enjoyed baking holiday treats for WIND clients and workers. Like a beloved grandmother, she continued visiting the center after retiring to give hugs, listen to problems and encourage young people not to lose faith in God or themselves.
"All they wanted was to be appreciated and loved to matter to someone," former WIND director Tasha Bryant said. "She made the kids feel like they mattered."