40 Years of Leadership – Founder Patricia O’Roark

“We can do better…” – Patricia O’Roark

We celebrate the perseverance and vision of Mercy Housing’s Foundress, Patricia O’Roark, for her lasting commitment to creating vibrant communities built to help individuals, families, seniors, veterans, and people with special needs reach their full potential.

Our story begins in 1981 when Patricia O’Roark (then Sister Timothy Marie O’Roark) was a young attorney working in the housing department at the Legal Aid Society in Omaha. Born in Kansas City, MO, Patricia was the youngest of five children and the first in her family to go to college. She received her B.A. in Sociology from Rockhurst College in Kansas City and went on to receive her J.D. from the University of Nebraska.

It was during her 13 years at the Legal Aid Society while working with families and having seen how stable housing positively influenced health and education, O’Roark hoped that the Sisters of Mercy would expand their community endeavors to include housing.  She vowed, “we can do better.”

Mercy Housing Founder, Patricia O’Roark

Q: How did your vision of a housing ministry come to life?

A: I was working at the Legal Aid Society in Omaha as a staff attorney and worked with families who had little to no help accessing affordable housing and were being evicted from where they were living at the time with little to no notice. The conditions they were living in were horrible. After talking with the families and having walked through a couple of the buildings, I thought, “I know we can do better than this.” I then put together a proposal with the idea to establish a sponsored housing ministry for the poor and low-income persons and presented it to the Sisters of Mercy in Omaha. The proposal was adopted almost unanimously.

Sisters of Mercy leadership tapped Sister Mary Terese Tracy, who had been the CEO of Mercy Hospital in Nampa, ID, to put some meat on the bones of this new ministry and allocated from the financial resources of the Sisters of Mercy Community treasury $500,000 to the effort. The first thing Sister Mary Terese did was to call together a task force of folks from various parts of the country who were either housers or knowledgeable about the lack of affordable housing and related consequences. I was a member of this task force which met throughout 1981.

We knew we wanted to focus on human dignity and make systemic changes. It was recommended that the Community become an owner of affordable housing, with a special focus on preserving existing affordable housing. In December 1981, we formed the nonprofit Mercy Housing, Inc. (MHI). I served on the initial MHI Board of Directors until I believe 1988 or 1989.

It didn’t take long to discover that it wasn’t enough to simply own low-income housing…we needed to control the management of these properties and resident services. Our next step was to form Mercy Management Services (now known as Mercy Housing Management Group), which was created to provide management and services to support residents.

In 1984, the Catherine McAuley Housing Foundation (now known as Mercy Community Capital) was created.  This fund continues to provide capital not only for Mercy Housing developments but also helps other nonprofits that build affordable housing. We realized early on we did not only need to develop affordable housing ourselves, but we must support other nonprofits doing the same work with a shared goal for systemic change.

Q: What has your journey with Mercy Housing been like?

A: I served on the Board of Directors and became the COO in 1996 or 1997 and served in that capacity until 2007. I also served as the Executive Director of Mercy Community Capital, and then acted as a kind of “deal closer intermediary” between the corporate office in Denver and the regional development arms across the organization. I held this position until 2012 at which time I retired.

Q: What are you most proud of?

A:  I think I am most proud that we were over the years able to attract talented people to the work of Mercy Housing, who are personally committed to the values and the vision of the organization. In the beginning, we were big in heart and small on “know-how.” Today there is plenty of both, and the reputation of the organization is a testament to that. I said once, “we can do better than this,” referring to the dismal experience of people living in low-income housing in the 1970s. Well, by working together over the last four decades, with other religious communities, committed volunteer board members, talented creative employees, financial partners, and extraordinary leadership, we ARE doing better!

Q:  Can you describe a time when you really felt Mercy Housing’s mission and values come alive?

A:  Oh my – there are too many to count! However, I will share one anecdote that to me exemplifies in spades the core values of Mercy Housing. Some years ago, Jane Graf (the former CEO) and I were in the San Francisco Regional office. At that time the office was on the ground floor of a newly constructed family development in the city. The windows were the type that a person could see out to the street, but the people outside couldn’t see into the building.

Jane told me about a time, early one morning when she happened to first be in the office, she saw a homeless man crouched in the hollow of a window of her office preparing to shoot up some sort of drug cocktail. She could have done any number of things: call the police, chase the guy away, or simply ignore him in hopes that he would wander off. Curious, I asked her, “what did you do?” It turns out she left her office and went outside to talk to him.

“I asked him if he could find someplace else to take the drugs, explaining that this was a family apartment building and that children lived here and shouldn’t be exposed to this kind of behavior. They could be hurt by dropped needles and so forth.”

I asked, “what was his response?” And she continued, “Oh, he agreed, and he apologized. He left immediately.”

There was no judgment, no blame in her approach to this poor soul; just a heartfelt request from one human to another. As a result, this fellow, despite his desperate circumstances and personal liabilities, was able to act responsibly and maintain a bit of dignity in the process. To me, this was a perfect example of the marriage of our mission and core values.

Q: Do you have a message for employees as we celebrate this milestone year?

A:  Thank you for all you do on behalf of Mercy Housing. You are the breath that gives life to the mission, vision, and values of Mercy Housing. Never forget that your work is noble work.  

The Sisters of Mercy

We celebrate and honor the women who have shaped us into the organization we are today. The Sisters of Mercy founded Mercy Housing, giving us the foresight and leadership that enabled us to become a leader in affordable housing and Resident Services. They envisioned affordable housing to always offer the Resident Services that, today, keep our organization impactful. Women Religious laid the foundation for Mercy Housing to be more than four walls and a roof, pushing us to pioneer innovation in healthcare and housing models since the beginning.

The legacy of the Sisters permeates our organization’s core values of respect, justice, and mercy. Mercy Housing is a 501(c)(3) that does not exclude or discriminate based on religion. Founding Women Religious will forever be a source of encouragement and spiritual support as we follow the Sisters’ tradition to speak and act in the belief that affordable housing is a basic human right.