Aug. 11—Sister Donna Ryan had a knack for making dreams a reality.
So much so that her fellow Sisters of Mercy had a running joke, in which they'd consider "who but Donna" when discussing her quirks and accomplishments.
Ryan, a Sister of Mercy and founder of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, died July 31 at age 80.
Her passion for serving all people, her Catholic faith and her ability to make connections, no matter the community in which she happened to reside, all contributed to the legacy she left behind.
She knew how to collaborate with others in such a way that Ryan's accomplishments were never fully about her, fellow Sister of Mercy Jeanne Christensen noted.
That was certainly the case in Boulder, where Ryan worked behind the scenes to advocate for the Boulder Shelter until the day she was reassigned to a new church and left the city.
The Boulder Shelter opened in the winter of 1982 after the formation of the Task Force on Shelter and Food for the Poor after a veteran experiencing homelessness died of cold exposure in downtown Boulder.
In informational history included on the shelter's website, Barbara Farhar, the original director of the Shelter Task Force, noted that Ryan ran the shelter for a few months that winter after an abandoned bus terminal downtown was OK'd for temporary use.
"Who but Donna would start a shelter in an abandoned bus depot," Christensen said.
The location worked temporarily, but Ryan decided a vacant building at 5th Street and Canyon Boulevard would be perfect for a more permanent space. However, it was on the market for $250,000, while the Shelter Task Force had $127,000 to spend on a building.
Investors ultimately bought the space and agreed to lease it for use as a shelter for $200 a month.
"It was an unbelievable break," Farhar wrote. "Sister Donna must have had her connections. That's all I can say."
Ryan grew up in the Kansas City metropolitan area and spent many of her last years in ministry back in the area where she grew up. Christensen met Ryan after joining the Sisters of Mercy. The pair taught at the same school in Kansas City in the 1970s.
She served the LGBTQ+ community, sex workers and victims of human trafficking and was remembered as the type of person who once conducted a memorial service for a woman and child after the single mother died on the streets while unknowingly pregnant.
"Donna's love was nonjudgmental, caring and inclusive," Christensen said. "She welcomed all, whether they lived on the margins or were part of more institutional structures."
Somehow, Ryan had a way of turning questions about her personal well-being back on the person asking.
"She would smile and say, "Oh, honey. How are you?" Christensen recalled. "That's just who she was. She never answered the question."
"She knew everybody. She knew people by name," she added. "She just wasn't a stranger to folks."
That was certainly Boulder resident Mary Ann Tomasko Perry's experience. She met Ryan through St. Thomas Aquinas, where Ryan served as a pastoral assistant as well as through time spent volunteering at the Boulder Shelter.
Tomasko Perry won't forget when Ryan returned to Boulder years after leaving to celebrate the Boulder Shelter's 30th anniversary. The pair laughed and danced the night away.
"She was a force for good in the community," Tomasko Perry said.
Others referenced Ryan's sense of fun, too.
"She was not all work and no play," Christensen said. "We've all partied with Donna."
But her hard work did not go unnoticed. In recognition of her death, the Boulder Shelter shared a statement honoring her dedication to the shelter, which has served thousands of people over the years.
"Our community is stronger, more compassionate and more dignified thanks to her inspiring leadership," the shelter wrote. "We will be forever grateful."
Whether people know her name or not, Ryan made an impact on Boulder, much like she touched those who came to love her across her 80 years, friends said.
"Every one of us is blessed to be among those whom this lady loved and embraced," Christensen said.