By Nina Janopaul, former APAH President and CEO (2007 – 2021)
Jean and Jack Sweeney moved to Arlington in 1968. Jean’s pastor introduced her to Dolores Leckey, leader of a couples prayer group. In 1986, this group read the Pastoral Letter from the US Catholic Bishops on “Economic Justice for All,” and discerned a call to form a new housing organization in Arlington—which they named the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing. As Jack said: “I’m in awe that our little prayer group’s wacky idea has blossomed into thousands of units.”
Jean Sweeney’s engaging smile and sprightly step repudiate her 83 years. She drives a bright blue Prius and can often be found lunching and laughing at the café connected to Kitchen of Purpose, on the ground floor of APAH’s Gilliam Place.
Of all the APAH founders, Jean Sweeney has been the most present at APAH events in recent years, in part because of her engagement with the Arlington Presbyterian Church (APC). She met APC’s dynamic pastor, Ashley Goff, at the opening of APAH’s Gilliam Place in 2019. She also knew APC member Susan Etherton, a key leader in the housing project, from their mutual work at the Shalem Institute. Jean, a lifelong, deeply-engaged Catholic, was lying in bed contemplating an Ignatian spiritual question: “What might I regret on my deathbed?” Her answer: not experiencing worship with a woman priest. So, she started worshipping at APC. Of course, Jean argues, after 80 years, she is still Catholic. She still attends the wonderful Wednesday noon services at Our Lady Queen of Peace, where the elderly Franciscan Friar delivers a compelling homily.
Being a member of APC brings Jean full circle to the original founders’ vision: “In the shelter of each other the people live.” This Irish blessing was part of the APAH logo in its early years and epitomizes the deep partnership between APC and Gilliam Place. APC just raised $200,000 in rent relief for distressed APAH residents. APC also offers music lessons, concerts and other forms of ongoing support for Gilliam Place residents.
Jean’s life is packed with multiple, faith-filled circles. In 1975, she joined a Catholic/Protestant group of 16 women known as the Partner’s Community. The group met monthly for many decades, creating experiential programs for group learning, including art and poetry as a means to understand faith. Rhoda Nary (another APAH founder) and Jacqueline McMakin published some of their work as the Doorways series of instruction in 2004. For 15 years, Jean was a leader of Kairos retreats at the women’s penitentiary in Fluvanna, Virginia, another ecumenical program. Rhoda Nary was also a volunteer. The Kairos prison ministry movement sprang from the Cursillo curriculum. Kairos means “the right time” or, as Jean described it, “God’s time.”. She still keeps in touch with some of the formerly incarcerated women.
Jean was executive director of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia in the late 1970’s. She returned to school for a graduate degree in Pastoral Counseling in 1985 when she realized she was more interested in building community than in running a nonprofit. Jean served on the staff of both St. Charles Borromeo (20 years) and St. Ann’s (5 years) catholic churches in Arlington, leading spiritual direction and religious education. In her “retirement” in 2005, she joined the Ignatian Volunteer Corps as a mentor and group facilitator. She also wrote and served as spiritual director for the Shalem Institute.
Jack started his career in communications and public policy. He was inspired to work on Capitol Hill after Watergate and served two members of Congress from Virginia—Herb Harris and Rick Boucher. In 1985, he started investing in commercial real estate—building skills that would prove helpful to APAH. Jack and Tom Leckey were hands-on in APAH’s early years—finding the original Fisher House buildings in Westover, securing financing from the County, repainting the units and managing the rentals.
Alice Hogan recalls working with Jack in 1992 when he recruited the Big Apple Circus to Arlington as a fundraiser for APAH. She was a new college grad and followed Jack’s gregarious lead. Jack was proud that they raised $10,000—a princely sum for a new organization. Alice pulled the Dr. Seuss book, “If I Ran The Circus,” off her shelf and read Jack’s inscription, thanking her for helping to make this a success. Jack delights in Alice’s continued engagement with APAH and housing issues in Arlington.
For Jack, the most important part of the APAH name was the word: “partnership”. In the early years, they were constantly recruiting volunteers for the fledgling organization. Between the four couples, they knew many in the community and could often secure the talent they needed—e.g., lawyers, accountants, contractors—to help fulfill the APAH vision.
After Jack and Jean went their separate ways. Jack remarried and moved to Bethany Beach, Delaware. They share a deep pride in their three daughters, all of whom work in public service. Their youngest, Annie, works for housing nonprofit AHC, Inc. I recall Jean asking me, nine years ago, if it would be a conflict for Annie to accept a job working for a fellow nonprofit housing organization. No, indeed, I responded. Annie is following the founder’s footsteps, like Alice Hogan, part of the next generation bringing “Economic Justice for All.”