Local Obituaries

‘The answer is always love.’ Sister Claire Graham spent a lifetime fighting for the poor

Maye Saephanh (left) hugs Sister Claire Graham at Wellspring Women’s Center in this photo from June 2010.  Graham founded the center along with Sister Catherine Connell.
Maye Saephanh (left) hugs Sister Claire Graham at Wellspring Women’s Center in this photo from June 2010. Graham founded the center along with Sister Catherine Connell. Sacramento Bee

Sister Claire Graham, who founded Wellspring Women’s Center in Oak Park and for decades was a powerful voice for poor people in Sacramento, died this week. She was 81 years old.

Graham, a member of the Roman Catholic Church’s Sisters of Social Service, died suddenly on Monday from an infection that apparently was unrelated to a recent heart surgery, said her longtime friend, Sally Hite.

“Claire had a huge heart for the poor, and for those who are less fortunate in other ways,” said Hite, a marriage and family therapist. “She frequently said that it doesn’t matter what the question is, the answer is always love.”

A memorial service will be held in the near future in Sacramento, Hite said. Details still are being determined.

Graham was born in San Francisco and spent her early childhood in the Bay Area before moving with her parents to Sacramento. She attended St. Francis High School, and later became a social worker. She joined the Sisters of Social Service of Los Angeles in 1972, and took her final vows in 1978.

Sister Ellen Hunter entered the order at the same time.

“Our focus on social justice was a good fit for her,” Hunter said of Graham. “She was very outgoing, charismatic and personable, all in the interest of social justice.”

After becoming a sister, Graham operated a spiritual retreat center and a summer camp for underprivileged youth in Southern California, then returned to Sacramento.

In 1987, she and her friend, Sister Catherine Connell, moved by the plight of a homeless woman they met on the street, launched Wellspring Women’s Center in Oak Park. More than 30 years later, the nonprofit center each weekday continues to offer as many as 200 poor women and children breakfast, friendship, counseling and help with connections to social services.

While Wellspring is perhaps Graham’s most prominent legacy, her influence spread much farther, friends said.

Throughout her career, she worked to improve the lives of poor people through social activism, speaking engagements and participation on various boards and commissions. Until recently, she maintained a private practice in which she individually coached people about connecting with their spirituality.

Graham was an active and beloved member of the St. Francis of Assisi church community in midtown. Among other things, she helped found and nurture a program offering homeless people meals and a safe place to sleep on the church’s property.

More recently, she spent several days “walking the streets as a homeless person to see what that life is really like,” said Sister Libby Fernandez, a longtime friend and former director of the Loaves & Fishes homeless services center.

Beyond Graham’s dedication to social justice, Fernandez and others said they will remember her for her no-nonsense attitude, her sharp sense of humor and the mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

“Claire was so real,” Fernandez said. “She was a straight shooter. She was so powerful in her sense of being that she was comfortable talking to the mayor of Sacramento or a homeless person in exactly the same way.”

Graham’s life was about “kicking down the barriers” that held poor people back “with every bit of energy that she had,” said Margaret Healey, an active member of the St. Francis parish.

“The word ‘beloved’ gets thrown around a lot, but that’s Sister Claire,” Healey said. “She taught all of us to learn how to accept people as they are and to see God in their faces. She kept it simple, and she lived it.”

Frances Freitas said her friendship with Graham goes back about 50 years, when Graham was working as a social worker at the Stanford Home for Children, now called Stanford Youth Solutions.

“She could be cranky like all of us,” Freitas said with a laugh. “But it was never in a disrespectful or hostile way. She had a profound respect for all people.”

Hite said Graham, her roommate at the time of her death, probably would not want people to mourn her.

“If you want to do something for Sister Claire, take whatever little thing you might have learned from her and act as her deputy,” Hite said. “Spread her love around.”