Mary Ann Luby, 70

Dominican nun fought for needs, and dignity, of the least powerful

Sister Mary Ann Luby helped establish the Franklin School shelter.
Sister Mary Ann Luby helped establish the Franklin School shelter. (Courtesy Of Sister Andrea Balconis)

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By Nathan Rott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Mary Ann Luby, a Dominican nun who spent three decades working with the District's underprivileged, abused and homeless residents and voiced compassionate concern about the needs of the city's disenfranchised, died of cancer Nov. 29 at the Washington Home hospice. She was 70.

A former teacher and social worker, Sister Mary Ann was the first director of the privately run Rachael's Women's Center and for the last 15 years had been an outreach worker for the nonprofit Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

When she first came to the city, there were five or six shelters or programs for homeless people operating within the two-mile stretch between the White House and Congress. It had once been described in The Washington Post as "America's Homeless Belt."

John Steinbruck, former pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, called Sister Mary Ann "a founding part, an indispensable part, of the movement to bring justice to the homeless in the early '80s."

That movement focused on providing people not just a meal and a bed for the night but the resources to escape homelessness, and it influenced national policy. Sister Mary Ann was best known for her ability to act as a liaison between homeless people and those in positions of power.

Rather than calling attention to herself, she insisted that homeless people speak for themselves at public meetings. It taught them to make their voices heard, she'd say, and elevated their standing in the eyes of the public. She added that it bolstered their sense of accomplishment.

At the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Sister Mary Ann produced a monthly newsletter, Listen Up, that was distributed citywide to inform homeless people of upcoming D.C. Council hearings, shelter notices and free meals.

Throughout the 1990s, Sister Mary Ann helped shape the city's strategies for sheltering people who were homeless during the winter months, emphasizing the needs of families in particular.

She fought to remove barriers that might prevent people from accessing the city's shelters, including sobriety requirements and providing personal identification such as Social Security numbers.

She helped spearhead the opening of a shelter in the old Franklin School at 13th and K streets Northwest in 2003 - a so-called "low-barrier" shelter that housed hundreds of homeless people. She fought later efforts by the city to close the shelter and turn it over to developers.

The city "has not been inclusive with development for those who don't have influence or money," Sister Mary Ann told The Washington Post in 2006. "Here we have a place, right smack in the middle of all this expensive development, which will be for people who struggle and offer them opportunities to get them out of ness."

Two years later, she and other advocates lost the battle to keep the shelter open. At the time, Mayor Adrian Fenty was trying to move homeless people into single-occupancy housing such as apartments instead of communal shelters.

Mary Ann Luby was born March 7, 1940, in Queens, N.Y. Early in her career, she was in the Sacred Heart order. In 1992, she switched to the Dominicans.

She graduated from D'Youville College in Buffalo in 1968 and received a master's degree in education from Georgia State University in 1976.

Early in her career, Sister Mary Ann worked as an elementary school teacher in Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York. In 1969, she spent a year as finance director of a hospital on Kodiak Island, Alaska.

In 1979, after 13 years of teaching, Sister Mary Ann took a job as a social worker at a treatment center in Buffalo. She came to Washington four years later to direct Rachael's Women's Center.

Sister Mary Ann participated in several coalitions and advocacy groups for underprivileged people in the District and received many awards for her work.

Survivors include three sisters, her twin Sabina Prendergast of Clifton, N.J., Patricia Howe of New York City and Rosemary Watkins of Washington.

Sister Mary Ann often joined in protests and public assemblies on behalf of people and once was arrested.

She was not easily rattled by the violent behavior of some who live in shelters. She said she had been attacked with a kitchen knife and faced down a shelter guest who destroyed a television set.

She said her mission was not to coddle those in shelters but to get them to think of others besides themselves. That, she said, "is the beginning of mental health."

When a group of women at Rachael's Women's Center saved up to buy Sister Mary Ann a pair of Calvin Klein jeans for her birthday, she said she was so touched she nearly lost her composure.

"Her sense of integrity, in terms of dealing with people no matter who they were, never changed," said Maria Riley, a friend and nun who knew Sister Mary Ann for 30 years. "She related to everyone in the same way."


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