By Catherine Walsh, Features Writer
The Sisters of Mercy have a storied history of serving our country. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called them “veritable angels of mercy.” Sisters of Mercy also ministered in the Spanish-American War to sick and wounded soldiers. More recently, before entering religious life, sisters served in World War II, Vietnam and in non-combat times. This Veterans Day we share two of their stories: Sister Patti Baca and Sister Libby Fernandez.
Sister Libby Fernandez: Air Force Veteran
Raised on Air Force bases worldwide because her father was an airman, Sister Lizabeth Marie “Libby” Fernandez was drawn to the U.S. Air Force as a teenager. “I joined Junior ROTC in high school and became squadron commander my senior year,” she says. She then received a coveted spot at the United States Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1979.
Relishing the academy’s physical rigor, young Libby earned her freefall parachute wings, non-powered glider wings, and a deep-sea scuba diving certificate in between her studies. She also found herself going to morning Mass at Cadet Chapel. When Libby was a junior cadet in 1983, she saw something that shocked her.
“Young people were chaining themselves to the chapel doors in nonviolent protest against war and the military,” she recalls. “It was a perplexing and confusing moment for me. I couldn’t understand why people were protesting when I was a Catholic who worshiped daily in the chapel. At that time, I felt called by God to serve and protect our country.”
The incident led her to discern whether God was calling her to a new path. “I began exploring where God was truly calling me,” says Libby.
When the pull towards religious life and nonviolence became too strong to ignore, Libby left the academy before graduation. “I would have been obligated to spend six years in the Air Force if I graduated, versus two years if I left beforehand,” she says.
The young woman finished her education in Sacramento, California, spent time with Sisters of Mercy there and volunteered at Loaves & Fishes helping unhoused adults and children. She also fulfilled her Air Force obligation at a base near Sacramento, where, as Sergeant Fernandez, she served as the first director of the Air Force’s Outdoor Adventure Program. “I took airmen kayaking, spelunking, skiing, scuba diving, and camping,” she says. “It was high-risk adventure activities and I loved it!”
After serving seven years in the Air Force, Libby entered the Sisters of Mercy on September 1, 1990.
During her religious formation, Libby started an outdoor adventure group for sisters. “Every other month I would take sisters walking or hiking on historical trails in state parks, national parks and other points of interest,” she says. She also ministered at social service agencies and served as the executive director of Loaves & Fishes from 2005-2017. She oversaw an annual Veterans Day event for homeless veterans. “We would have senators, mayors and other leaders come out and express gratitude to these men and women who served our country,” she says.
For years, Libby was also involved with the Sacramento Catholic Worker Movement. In addition, she was arrested at least six times for protesting at the School of the Americas, a facility that trained many of the Latin American military personnel found to be responsible for the region’s atrocities.
As California’s housing crisis continued to escalate, Libby founded Mercy Pedalers in 2017 to “bring Mercy to the streets.” Every day, regardless of the weather, Libby and about 75 volunteers pedal around Sacramento on bicycles or oversize tricycles, delivering coffee and personal hygiene items and offering warm words to people living on sidewalks and other unsheltered places.
Sharing her veteran status with homeless veterans “can lead to moving conversations,” says Libby. “I thank them for their service. I start a conversation about it. They feel good that people want to recognize them when their lives are so miserable.”
Each Veterans Day, Sister Libby balances her appreciation of being a veteran with her commitment to nonviolence. “I’m proud to be an American and proud to have served my country, while I also agonize about using violence to resolve conflicts,” she says. “It’s a quandary. As a Sister of Mercy I am committed to working for a nonviolent world.”