Beatrice Cortez, the fourth president of COPS/Metro Alliance, remembers Sister Christine Stephens as a classic grassroots agitator – someone who took action whenever and wherever she saw injustice in her community.
“She’d ask you questions. She made me think of what’s important in life – faith and family,” Cortez said of Stephens, who died July 18 following complications from a stroke. She was 78.
Stephens applied her devout Catholic faith to 40-plus years as a local organizer with groups such as COPS/Metro Alliance.
An Austin native, Stephens entered the Congregation of Divine Providence in September 1962 and professed her first vows as a Sister of Divine Providence two years later.
Stephens earned a bachelor’s degree in economics before entering the local Our Lake of the Lake convent. She went on to earn a master’s degree in history from St. Mary’s University.
Combining faith and justice was important in Stephens’ family. Her father Walter was a member of a pipe-fitters union.
Stephens spent seven years as a teacher and eight years as a social worker, always focusing on ways to instill community pride, leadership, and social justice in those with which she worked.
Ernesto Cortes Jr., the founder of COPS, had recognized these traits in Stephens through her work with Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a community organizing network.
Stephens would go on to become IAF’s national co-director, and she supervised groups across the IAF network for years.
Stephens and Cortes, among many others, worked together to train and equip fellow organizers to address issues of inequity in their own neighborhoods, including water and wastewater infrastructure on the city’s West and South sides and in border colonias, job training needs, and improving student performance in schools in poorer areas.
Cortez said Stephens was not afraid to ruffle feathers in efforts to bring injustices to light and to conquer those challenges.
“Good organizers always ask questions,” Cortez said. “They push you to take steps to do something.”
Cortez also expressed confidence that family, friends, and associates likely will remember how Stephens worked to develop fellow leaders and organizers, even if it meant involving a bit of blunt constructive criticism.
“[Stephens] was like Ernest Cortes – agitating people, motivating people, brining the best out of people,” Cortez said. “She made no judgment. If she was critiquing you, it was to get you to do your best.”
Walker Moore, who now holds Stephens’ former COPS/Metro Alliance position of lead organizer, said Stephens was firmly invested in people and their potential.
“She mentored people across the United States. She was interested in development of people. There are people better off because of her,” Moore said.
The Rev. Mike De Gerolami, a longtime COPS/Metro Alliance leader and a retired priest, recalled how Stephens was one of the first people to reach out to him after he was diagnosed with leukemia.
“She was a leader in social justice with a great mind a a big heart,” De Gerolami said. “It was ingrained in her to do the right thing.”
Stephens is survived by her sister, Sarah Howell, niece Angela Duhon with husband William, and their children Emma and Nathaniel. She was preceded in death by her parents Walter and Frances Stephens.
A rosary will be said for Stephens at 4 p.m. Thursday, followed by a wake at 6:30 p.m. A funeral Mass will be given at 10:30 a.m. Friday. All services will be held at Sacred Heart Chapel near the OLLU convent center at 515 S.W. 24th St.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to the Sisters of Divine Providence.