Sheila Walsh, activist nun who lobbied for the needy, dies at 83

Prone to bursting into politicians’ offices – and then calling their wives if they ignored her – she was one of the most reliable characters in the California capital of Sacramento.

In a world of revolving administrations and ideological left turns, Sheila Walsh didn’t change. For decades after arriving in Sacramento in the 1970s, the native from Los Angeles fought for a singular cause: social justice for people living at the margins.

She was a lobbyist. And a nun.

Better known as Sister Sheila, the woman who scurried around the Capitol in Birkenstock sandals, knew everybody by name and lobbied relentlessly for the rights of the needy, Walsh died of a heart attack Aug. 15 at Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, said her nephew Patrick Walsh. She was 83.

Long believed to be the only nun lobbying full time in Sacramento, she relied on her persistence and attention to detail to sway politicians. She stayed up late studying the minutiae of pending legislation, said Mary Wesley of Jericho, the interfaith lobbying organization Walsh founded in 1987.

“You couldn’t say no to Sister Sheila,” Wesley said. “She was tenacious and intrepid. And she was a fighter.”

When it came to advocating for people who lived in poverty – and that’s the way she insisted people phrase it, instead of saying “the poor” – Walsh wanted to change the system and the stigma.

“In the Depression, everyone was poor together,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “But now, to be poor is sort of like to be bad.”

Her tactics were tenacious yet personal.

On one of former Assemblywoman Liz Figueroa’s first days at the Capitol in the mid-1990s, a stranger approached the new Democratic legislator from Fremont and introduced herself. From then on, Figueroa said, it wasn’t uncommon for the nun, who often wore a metal medallion of a dove and the phrase “Come Holy Spirit,” to rush up behind her and grab her by the arm.

“She’d say, ‘Liz, this is very important,’” Figueroa recalled. “And you could feel that you’d get not only the wrath of Sister Sheila but the wrath of God if you did not follow through.”

Walsh became her “mirror of consciousness” – a de facto adviser whose stance on social issues and how to prioritize the budget almost always guided Figueroa’s vote.

Word of Walsh’s persuasive powers quickly spread around the Capitol, said former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon’s chief of staff, Saeed Ali.

“Like most people, I tried to avoid her,” he said, laughing at the memory of the woman he met during his stint years ago as director of the Latino legislative caucus in Sacramento.

But even then, she found a way.

“She’d call my wife in Los Angeles,” he said. “And I’d get a call, ‘How come you haven’t called Sister Sheila back?’”

True to form, Walsh persisted and Ali soon found himself relying on her as a moral compass. Years later, after returning to L.A., she convinced him to join Jericho’s board of directors.

Born in Los Angeles on April 15, 1930, Walsh was one of three children of Irish immigrants. A product of local Catholic grammar and high schools, she considered working as an accountant before eventually following her brother’s footsteps into a religious order.

“When I entered the convent, my father was so happy,” she told the Sacramento Bee in 2007. “He had a son who was a priest and a daughter who was a nun – and to him that was heaven.”

After completing a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of San Francisco and a master’s degree – also in social work – from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., she moved to Sacramento for a job with the Catholic Social Services’ department of aging. After several years there, she took over social services for the state’s Catholic conference and registered as a lobbyist.

When asked about hot-button issues in the Catholic Church – such as abortion – Walsh savored the opportunity to reframe the conversation.

“They introduce themselves as pro-life,” she told the Sacramento Bee in 2002. “And I say, ‘Oh, I’m so glad. You must be fighting for healthcare for the poor.’ And they look at me like I’m bonkers.”

Walsh is survived by nieces and nephews.

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