A few months ago, someone on a list-serve I'm on asked us a provocative question: "Have you ever met a saint?" I had a quick response: "Yes. I've met Sister Diane Donoghue."
My friend Sister Diane, as everyone called her, died on Sunday morning in Los Angeles on her 86th birthday.
Of course, Sister Diane would have been aghast by my calling her a saint. She was the opposite of holier-than-thou. She was a down-to-earth, savvy activist as well as a theological troublemaker.
She was a radical. And she was one of the most committed and effective grassroots organizers I've ever met.
She was happiest at strategy sessions, rallies and demonstrations, and hanging out with the residents of her beloved South LA community. She was the founder and chief fundraiser for Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, but she made sure that the nonprofit group was run as an egalitarian community- and employee-run operation.
Sister Diane and I served on lots of committees and worked on many grassroots campaigns together, including the successful campaign for a Housing Trust Fund. I was the professor who was supposed to be the housing “expert,” but I saw myself as Sister Diane’s student. I learned more from her than from any of my own professors.
I was pleased to introduce her at the 1998 graduation ceremonies when Occidental College gave her an honorary degree for her lifetime of activism. Whenever she spoke in my Community Organizing class at Oxy, students were mesmerized.
Sister Diane was feisty, funny, and full of love. Her decency and kindness were inspiring. She hated injustice and devote her life to fighting it. The bankers and business people in LA were both charmed by her twinkle and smile and afraid of her righteous anger and ability to organize. When we wanted to get LA Cardinal Roger Mahony to lead a tour of slum housing for candidates for mayor and City Council, we went to Sister Diane. She delivered.
Sister Diane moved to LA with her family in 1935. She went to UCLA and majored in political science. In 1953 she visited India, , where her observations of extreme poverty greatly influenced her philosophy and life. In 1955 she entered the Sisters of Social Service, a Catholic order devoted to serving the poor. In 1969 she received a Master of Social Work degree UC-Berkeley. She went on to work as the director of a residential treatment center for adolescents with mental health issues in Sacramento, and then as the co-sponsor/director of a residential center for heroin-addicted women in South Central Los Angeles. Following a year of sabbatical studies at the UC-Berkeley Graduate Theological Union, Sister Diane became a Community Organizer for St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in South Central Los Angeles in 1985.
In 1989 Sister Diane was approached by a woman dying of cancer. For 30 years, the woman’s family had rented the same home. She wanted to die peacefully in the home where she had raised her children, but her family was facing the threat of eviction.
Soon, other residents approached Sister Diane, concerned that their homes would also be destroyed for the construction of low-wage garment factories. Working with the community, Sister Diane created Esperanza Community Housing Corporation in South LA so that low-income residents would have decent housing and the ability to shape the future of their neighborhood.
Esperanza’s first project was Villa Esperanza Apartments: 33 units of affordable housing for large families, a community center, and an onsite Head Start program. In addition to building 10 more housing developments, Esperanza (which means "hope") also organized residents around tenants' rights and public health issues, provide services, challenge USC's efforts to gentrify the surrounding area, and forge coalitions (like the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice) to fight displacement and gentrification and force developers to meet community needs.
In 1999, with the community facing disinvestment by banks and businesses, Esperanza launched a plan to create a community center and marketplace in its South LA Neighborhood. Five years later, Sister Diane and community residents cut the ribbon on the Mercado La Paloma. They converted a former garment factory into a vibrant community gathering space and includes shops and restaurants, most of them owned by immigrant entrepreneurs.
In 2006, Sister Diane retired from Esperanza, but she didn't retire from activism. She was passionately involved with Nuns on the Bus - a group of nuns who traveled around the country raising hell about economic inequality and poverty.
Sister Diane received many awards and accolades for her work — including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, the UCLA Alumni Award for Community Service, the 2007 UCLA Alumnus of the Year Award, the Empowerment Award from the Los Angeles Archdiocese, an Honorary Doctorate from Occidental College, and the 2002 national “Courage in Community” Award from the McAuley Institute.
The Sisters of Social Service have arranged memorial services to be held at Holy Spirit Retreat Center, 4316 Lanai Road, Encino. California 91436. The vigil and viewing will be on Monday, March 6 at 7:30 pm. The mass will be held at 10 am on Tuesday, March 7.
I know she’ll be organizing the angels in heaven.
RIP, Sister Diane.
Peter Dreier is professor politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.