St. Barbara Food Pantry founder dies at 90

Sister Margaret Halligan, who founded the St. Barbara Parish Food Pantry and served as its director for 34 years, died peacefully on Jan. 14 at the age of 90.

Raised in Brookfield by a family who were parishioners at St. Barbara’s, she also attended the parish grade school. She graduated from Nazareth Academy in 1945, and two years later she entered religious life with the Sisters of St. Joseph at the age of 20.

Armed with a degree from DePaul University, Sister Margaret embarked on a 24-year career as a teacher – instructing students in every grade from three through eight in a number of Chicago-area Catholic schools, including St. John Fisher in Chicago, Divine Infant in Westchester, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Park, St. Joseph Academy in LaGrange Park and St. Francis Xavier in LaGrange.

While she often taught at schools not too far from home, it wouldn’t be until 1972 that Sister Margaret returned to her home parish in Brookfield to teach eighth grade. Two years later, she was named director of religious education, but in 1980 turned her focus to pastoral ministry, making a profound impact in the process.

Acting on a suggestion by then-pastor Rev. Donald Hughes to help those in need, Sister Margaret founded the St. Barbara Food Pantry, which for many years was located not too far from the church.

The food pantry later moved to its present location at 9300 47th St. and Sister Margaret remained at the helm until she retired in the summer of 2014 when she was 87.

Asked why she hadn’t retired earlier, Sister Margaret told the Landmark in 2009, “As long as you’re doing something good and helping people, that’s what life is all about. I can’t solve their problems, but I can walk with them and help them get through another day.”

Through the years, Sister Margaret drew a dedicated group of volunteers, including other nuns and lay people. She made connections with local schools, which would hold food drives for the pantry, and with local business owners, like Dennis Tischler, whose Brookfield grocery store collects food for the pantry on an ongoing basis and supplements the food pantry’s inventory regularly.

“If anyone could be remembered by so many people as she is, and loved by so many people – that’s impactful,” said Tischler, whose association with Sister Margaret goes back three decades. “She succeeded.”

Joy Klang, another lifelong Brookfield resident who knew Sister Margaret’s family as she was growing up, got to know Sister Margaret while holding food drives at the LaGrange kindergarten where she worked. Klang later became a dedicated volunteer at the food pantry itself.

“God gave her a job on Earth to do, and she fulfilled it,” Klang said. “We’re trying to carry on her job to the best of our ability, but we’ll never equal that.”

But the food pantry wasn’t the only ministry where Sister Margaret made an impact at St. Barbara. She established the parish’s Pastoral Care of the Sick of St. Barbara, the Seaton group, a holiday-centric Adopt-A-Family program and the Medical Lending Closet.

For many years, Sister Margaret lived at the St. Barbara convent before moving to Hodgkins, where she lived with Sister Thomas Agnes King, her closest friend and indispensable assistant at the food pantry, who died in 2016.

Sister Margaret also loved music and played a variety of musical instruments beginning in grammar school, according to Sister Mary Lou Pleitner, who knew Sister Margaret for decades and worked at St. Barbara Parish as an administrative assistant.

Starting on the trombone while in grade school, Sister Margaret added the drums and piano to her repertoire. In the 1950s and 1960s, Sister Margaret, in full habit, played the drums in an all-nun outfit called the Happy Hearts Combo.

While that group entertained fellow nuns, Sister Margaret in the 1970s and 1980s could be seen playing drums in another group called The Pink Garter, a singalong group that played for parish fundraisers.

“She was a delightful, happy personality,” Pleitner said.

Visitation is Friday, Jan. 19 from 6 to 9 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 20 from 9 to 10:30 a.m. at the Sisters of St. Joseph Chapel, 1515 Ogden Ave. in LaGrange Park. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at the chapel on Jan. 20 at 10:30 a.m.