Sister Sheila Walsh, believed to be the nation's first Catholic nun to become a registered lobbyist and a tireless advocate for people living in poverty, died Thursday at Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento. She was 83.
Sister Sheila, as she preferred to be called, was with the Order of the Sisters of Social Service since 1956 and established a reputation as a fighter in myriad causes of social justice.
In the Capitol in Sacramento, lawmakers openly spoke of her as an imposing presence who cut straight to the point when advocating for the underprivileged.
In 1987, Sister Sheila founded Jericho, a Sacramento-based organization under the sponsorship of the Sisters of Social Service. The interfaith lobbying organization focused on issues such as health care, housing and wages for those living in poverty.
She did not like the blanket word "poor" to describe those whose lives she strived to improve.
In a 2007 interview published in The Sacramento Bee, she forcefully noted: "Don't use the word 'poor.' It's insulting to say 'the poor.' There are other aspects of their lives besides living in poverty."
Yet Rory Walsh, a niece and goddaughter living in Oakland, said Sister Sheila indeed "dedicated her life to people in poverty, trying to enrich them and lift them up through her work with Jericho."
Her niece added: "She was very dedicated as a lobbyist. That was her life purpose and life's goal."
Born in Los Angeles to Irish immigrant parents who were devout Catholics, Sister Sheila grew up saying the rosary every night after dinner.
She graduated from St. Michael's Grammar School and Los Angeles Catholic Girls High School. She later received a bachelor's degree in social work from the University of San Francisco. Later, she earned a master's degree in social work from the Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
Sister Sheila decided to enter the convent at 21, after briefly flirting with the idea of becoming a certified public accountant.
She landed in Sacramento to work for Catholic Charities in 1971.
In the 2007 interview with The Bee, she recalled: "I started with counseling, but I knew it wasn't for me. I couldn't sit all day and listen to people's problems. I had to go out and do something."
That set her on the path of becoming a registered lobbyist in 1977, and she founded Jericho a decade later.
Under Sister Sheila's direction, Jericho worked to transform the way politicians addressed poverty-related issues. She sought bipartisan support for legislation that addressed systemic conditions that had long impacted underprivileged people across all religions, cultures and backgrounds.
Sister Sheila was preceded in death by her two brothers Michael Eamon Walsh and Patrick Joseph Walsh.
A funeral mass for Sister Sheila is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, 1017 11th St., in Sacramento. She will be interred at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Jericho, 1228 N St., Suite 10, Sacramento, CA 95814, or to Sisters of Social Service, 4316 Lanai Road, Encino, CA 91436.
Call The Bee's Mark Glover, (916) 321-1184.