Kathleen Mary Swords

Age 69: The Hampden resident was a social worker and political activist who sought to help the poor and resist war.

May 12, 2008|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

Kathleen Mary Swords, a longtime Baltimore social worker and political activist, died of colon cancer May 1 at Union Memorial Hospital. The Hampden resident was 69.

She was born in Holyoke, Mass., where she attended local schools. She graduated from the College of Our Lady of the Elms, now Elms College, with a bachelor's degree in English in 1960.

After college, she moved to New York City to reside with a group of activists who wanted to assist the poor and resist war. The collective was part of the Catholic Worker Movement, which was started during the Great Depression, according to her fiance, Charles Innes, also of Hampden.

Ms. Swords became friends with one of the founders of the movement, Dorothy Day, and worked with other members of the collective to protest the Vietnam War, according to her family.

She married Leo Villafana, an artist and carpenter, in 1966, and together the couple raised four children.

In the early 1970s, she moved to Baltimore, where she co-directed the Peoples Free Medical Clinic on Greenmount Avenue, her family said.

Subsequently, she spent about eight years in Massachusetts working as a psychiatric social worker, among several other jobs. She returned to Baltimore in 1989.

She spent the next two decades working as a caseworker with the Child Protective Services Unit of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. Her family said she often talked about her work, which brought her face to face with extreme poverty and distress.

"She would often get the 'red ball' cases," said Mr. Innes. "They were the ones that were already out in the media. They often involved drug dealers who were arrested and had underage girlfriends. She would have to find foster homes for the girls and make sure they were safe."

Mr. Innes, who met Ms. Swords in 1997, said that she went into parts of the city where even police officers wouldn't go, and that she did so "without a gun, a bulletproof vest or a badge."

Ms. Swords retired from the state agency last year.

For much of her life, Ms. Swords battled alcoholism and bipolar disorder. She recently celebrated 24 years of sobriety, according to her family. She was a member of the board of directors of Getting Them Sober, a Baltimore-based organization that helps alcoholics and their families.

Mr. Villafana, whom she divorced in 1971, died in 1991.

A memorial service will be held at a future date at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Hampden.

Besides her fiance, she is survived by a brother, John J. Swords III of Palm Beach, Fla.; a son, Leovigildo Villafana of North Springfield, Va.; three daughters, Catherine Snow of Atlanta, Karina "Tinker" Villafana Monroe of Granby, Mass., and Rosamarie Solivan Harper of Bethesda; and nine grandchildren.

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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