For one last time, Sister Libby Fernandez ended her work day at Loaves & Fishes mingling with hundreds of society’s outcasts.
On Wednesday, she bid them farewell at an ice cream social inside Friendship Park, the central gathering spot at the sprawling complex off North C Street in downtown Sacramento. It is a place where Fernandez has spent much of the past 22 years as an advocate for Sacramento’s homeless men and women.
“It’s hard to express the loss,” Fernandez said as she passed out cups of ice cream to homeless “guests,” her bright green Loaves & Fishes name tag clipped to her fleece vest. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like not to be here. It’s hard to imagine it.”
Soon, she will be off to her next adventure: a road trip to visit the country’s national parks, followed by a new Sacramento homeless “bicycle ministry” she calls Mercy Pedalers.
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Fernandez joined Loaves & Fishes in 1985, and for the past 11 years has served as its executive director. Driven by her mission as a Sister of Mercy, she has been the public face of the Sacramento area’s largest homeless services provider, pushing for housing, medical care, legal representation and other services for men and women who others ignore or shun.
Her work has generated plenty of controversy, with some blaming her agency for contributing to trash and crime problems. Fernandez, however, remained undaunted. Among other things, she recently oversaw a major renovation of the Loaves & Fishes campus.
“She changed a lot of things around here for the better,” said homeless advocate John Kraintz, who spent years living on the streets of Sacramento. “But what impressed me most about her is that she came and talked to the people every day. She loved the face-to-face contact with homeless folks. She didn’t act like an administrator with us.”
At Wednesday’s event, disheveled men and women lined up to hug Fernandez, shed tears and express gratitude. Many wrote their sentiments in a book featuring photos of dozens of the 700 or so people who regularly frequent Loaves & Fishes.
“Sister Libby, Our Savior from the Elements & Provider of our Needs,” one guest wrote.
“Thank you for helping to keep my cats alive,” wrote another.
“Thank you Sister Libby for all of the Lunches.”
Jessica Davila, a Loaves & Fishes client for the past two years, said she had mixed feelings about Fernandez’s departure.
“She brings us hope. She’s kind and cheerful,” Davila said. “It’s sad that this is her last day, but people like to move on and do different things and that’s OK.”
After guests finished their treats, they took to a microphone to address Fernandez, in words both simple and profound.
“Sister Libby Fernandez loves each one of us just as we are,” said Tracie Rice-Bailey.
Fernandez nodded, and assured everyone that her feelings will never change. Wednesday, she said, really was not goodbye.
“I’ll see you around,” she told a guest who embraced her and begged her to take care of herself. “I’m not going very far.”