Obituary: Dan Delany co-founded Loaves & Fishes, fought for the poor

Loaves & Fishes founder Dan Delany joins with homeless residents and other supporters to prepare for a possible confrontation with police at a homeless “tent city” in Sacramento in 2009. Mr. Delany and his wife often found themselves protesting for a variety of causes.
Loaves & Fishes founder Dan Delany joins with homeless residents and other supporters to prepare for a possible confrontation with police at a homeless “tent city” in Sacramento in 2009. Mr. Delany and his wife often found themselves protesting for a variety of causes. Sacramento Bee file

He was a Los Angeles priest who fell in love with a nun. Together, they left the Catholic Church, got married, moved to Sacramento and soon began helping the needy in their new hometown by making sandwiches and handing them out from the back of their van.

The need grew and so did the work to address it. Soon the van was not enough and the couple opened Loaves & Fishes. That was 37 years ago.

On Wednesday, Dan Delany, a towering figure in the local plight of the homeless and the battle against injustice, succumbed to a lengthy bout with dementia. He was 80. He is survived by his wife and co-founder of Loaves & Fishes, Chris Delany; their two adult children, Becky and John Delany; and three grandchildren.

Renowned as a storyteller and a wit, Mr. Delany could also be a fierce and persistent voice for the poor. And in many ways, he and his wife lived like those they served, taking only a small salary and never wavering from their vows of poverty they made through the church.

Loaves & Fishes began as a modest soup kitchen and expanded through the years to become a broad-based campus with a private school for homeless children, a shelter for chronically homeless and mentally ill women, a kennel for pets belonging to the poor and a kitchen that continues to serve meals to thousands on every day but Christmas.

Through the years, it has had tens of thousands of volunteers and is considered by many to be one of the area’s greatest charities, relying solely on private donations. But it has also been a lightning rod for controversy. In the 1990s, the City Council once threatened to sue Loaves & Fishes for feeding the poor on Sundays without a permit and for ignoring repeated warnings to stop. On another occasion, the city threatened to shut down the charity when some businesses and residents in the Alkali Flats section of town complained that Loaves & Fishes attracted too many homeless to the area.

Mr. Delany never wavered and never yielded to pressure, said Leroy Chatfield, Loaves & Fishes executive director from 1987 to 2000.

“He is in a class by himself,” Chatfield said. “He’s responsible for something that is vitally needed and that plays a major role in the community.”

“Dan Delany was the conscience of Sacramento when it came to acknowledging poverty amongst us and challenging the complacent and those who would turn a blind eye to it. Dan would not let you do that,” said Joan Burke, director of advocacy at Loaves & Fishes.

Mr. Delany was a longtime devotee of the Catholic Worker Movement, which emphasizes social justice, tending to the poor and living “in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ.”

To that end, Mr. Delany and his wife often found themselves protesting for a variety of causes, from U.S. policy in Central America in the late 1980s to a host of nuclear facilities throughout the country. They’d block roads. They’d storm buildings. They’d hold hands and sing and chant. And when they were carted off to jail, they were often sentenced to community service, an irony not lost on many of the couple’s admirers.

A 1990 story in The Bee chronicled the then-55-year-old Mr. Delany’s many protests and the inevitable brushes with the law.

“His wife, Chris, a former nun, says sweetly, ‘we’re s--- disturbers,’ ” Bee staff writer Stephen Magagnini wrote at the time. “The Delanys have been arrested more than 30 times, but they still get a charge out of civil disobedience.

“The Delanys are dedicated to getting the U.S. out of the war business. To that end, they’ve been arrested for breaking into Aerojet; at Mather Air Force Base; at the Trident submarine base in Georgia; at Strategic Air Command headquarters in Nebraska; and at the Nevada nuclear weapons test site.

“Delany was locked up for two months for breaking into Lockheed in Sunnyvale and pouring blood on a missile. He was jailed for protesting CIA recruitment at (California State University, Sacramento).”

When he wasn’t protesting, shaming elected officials or feeding the hungry, Mr. Delany had a lighter side that charmed friends, co-workers and volunteers alike.

“He was a charming Irishman in the truest sense. He had that gregariousness and was a teller of stories,” Burke said. “That’s how he would communicate a point.”

But beneath the wit was a commitment to the poor that never receded. By all accounts, the backlash directed at Loaves & Fishes never discouraged him and never swayed him from his mission to help the poor.

“Dan was very much like an Old Testament prophet,” Burke said. “He really had a sense of justice that compelled him to rail against injustice wherever he found it. To him, it was very basic. If there are hungry people, why aren’t we feeding them? If there are homeless people, why aren’t we housing them?”

A voracious reader throughout his life, Mr. Delany was known for his grasp of big ideas as well as his uncanny ability to cite pertinent facts and figures, Chatfield said.

“His recall was just short of amazing,” he said. “He could spout statistics and he really had insight and understood the significance of those numbers. He was a very intelligent person and was keenly aware not only of what was happening in Sacramento, but in the rest of the country and the world.”

But in his later years, friends began to notice a decline in that bright intellect and sharp wit. Mr. Delany was suffering from a form of dementia, and as the disease took hold, the advocate for the poor, the raconteur that was Dan Delany, faded away.

The illness took its toll on those around him. His wife cared for him at home for as long as she could before enrolling him in a care facility in Roseville, which she visited daily. For Chatfield, Mr. Delany’s gradual decline – subdued, then silent, then hopeless – was hard to watch.

“I had been through that experience with my own mother and found it to be devastating for me personally and the family,” he said. “I found it to be the same with Dan. It leaves you helpless. There’s just nothing you can do except suffer through it.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob


There will be a memorial Mass at 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Francis of Assisi Church, 1066 26th St., Sacramento. A reception will follow at the Loaves & Fishes Welcoming Center, 1351 N. C St.