Funeral services will be held later this month in Los Angeles for Helen Kelley, a former Catholic nun who was a leader in her order’s well-publicized 1960s conflict with the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church over modernization and opposition to the Vietnam War that led 400 sisters to surrender their vows in 1970.
Kelley, who was 94, was president of Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood from 1963 to 1977. The school closed in 1980, and the property at Franklin and Western avenues became the campus of the American Film Institute.
After stepping down from that higher education post, she became part of the Carter administration in Washington, D.C., serving as deputy associate director for Older Americans Volunteer Programs of the federal ACTION program.
In 1982, Kelley was named education director of People for the American Way, co-founded by film and TV producer Norman Lear (“All in the Family”), The organization and its affiliate, People For the American Way Foundation, are “progressive advocacy organizations founded to fight right-wing extremism and build a democratic society that implements the ideals of freedom, equality, opportunity and justice for all,” according to the group’s website.
Later she was executive director of the Josephson Institute for Ethics in the Professions.
The Immaculate Heart Sisters of Los Angeles’ fight with the local representatives of the Catholic Church was similar to disputes Catholic women’s communities were having during the generally turbulent era of the ’60s with the church’s male leaders, according to one source. Those leaders were represented in Los Angeles by conservative Cardinal James Francis McIntyre.
One written history of the battle said the fight was not only about a “clerical bureaucracy treating women as children,” but also a battle in which “truth speaks to power, honesty overcomes the lies of silence and women claim their own lives.”
One of her colleagues, Lenore Dowling, said Kelley was a “model of truth-telling, disciplined thought and insightful analysis” who “urged the college community to `choose life’ despite the climate of fear, racism and national unrest.”
Dowling said Kelley also encouraged Corita Kent, a member of the order and nationally recognized artist focusing on liberal concepts and anti-war works. She was known by the way she signed her works, “Corita.”
Kelley, known as Sister William in her days in the order, was a leader of a new ecumenical community formed in 1970 after the split with the church. She served as president of that Immaculate Heart community from 1993 to 1996.
Friends most often called her only by her last name. Kelley was born in Iowa, entered the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart in 1945, received her doctorate in sociology from the University of St. Louis in 1958 and then joined the faculty at Immaculate Heart College.
Services for Kelley, who died Thursday after a long illness following a stroke, will be held Nov. 22 at 11 a.m. at Calvary Cemetery, 4201 Whittier Blvd.