Patty Gillis

Portrait Image


South Field, Michigan






Executive Director, Voice for Earth Justice

interview date


“Our wealth is this planet.”


Patty talks here about growing up in a working class family, then leaving home to join a convent where she took a vow of poverty. “I always wanted to live a simple life.” In the meantime, the small business her parents founded, started doing very well and their financial circumstances changed dramatically.

My interview with Patty’s daughter, Catherine, is forthcoming.


I’ve lived in Michigan all my life. I grew up in a suburb just south of where I live now, called Livonia, Michigan, and when I was 22, I moved into Detroit to live and work. I think I saw myself in the grander view as kind of an urban missionary back then. After 37 years of living and working in Detroit, I just felt the need for more trees. I’m actually only one mile outside of Detroit. Detroit ends at Eight Mile, and I live between Eight and Nine mile in this first ring suburb of Southfield. But there’s a lot of trees here where I am.

Voices for Earth Justice is an interfaith environmental group that I started with another woman 12 years ago. We do education, mainly; and some advocacy, some prayer and spiritual discernment around environmental issues. There’s a lot of environmental groups, but Janet and I saw, when we started this, that there wasn’t any faith-based groups; there didn’t seem to be much faith response to the environmental crisis. So we started Voices as a way to stimulate a faith response.


I’m a baby boomer. I am the oldest of seven children. I was born into a traditional Catholic, Scottish-Irish family. My mother had five babies in six years. No birth control; she really was a strong Catholic. We lived in a neighborhood when I was a little girl where there were all these tiny little three-bedroom homes that were built right after World War II; and we were the first ones in our house. My parents had married right after World War II.

My parents both are Canadian, born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. My father came here after World War II. He had come during the war to visit his sister in Detroit, and my mother was his sister’s best friend; and so after the war, they married. My mother’s family had come to Detroit when she was a little girl. So a big part of my heart is still in Cape Breton.

We were definitely working class. My dad came home with big, you know, big boots and a lunch pail. My mother packed his lunch every morning. My father had struggled because he was an orphan. In the Royal Canadian Air Force, he was a radio operator, so later he went to Ford, worked there for a while as an apprentice, and he picked up some electrical skills. He became an electrician, but he never could get in the union, so he ended up starting his own business, Gillis Electric, which my brothers have been running, and which ironically enough, they’re now closing down. My brother who runs it is pushing 65, but my parents started the business in 1954 when they were in their thirties. It provided a livelihood for many, many people for a long time, including our family. But they worked, they worked hard.

I was First Lieutenant to my mother in running the house. I took care of the kids, and I lost some of my own childhood. My mother was in the basement running the business with my Dad. So my sister, Louise, who’s the second oldest, and I, we used to have a lot of negative feelings about the business. We now have mixed feelings, because everything was for the business, but it was also our family’s survival. And my brother Danny worked out in the garage with my Dad. All the equipment, and the office was in our home for a long time, and the garage had all the electrical stuff in it and the trucks. Until I left home, the business was in our home and garage. We kids answered the phone, we had to be quiet when they were having meetings, etc.

For my two younger brothers, who were born ten and eleven years after me, it was more of a middle class lifestyle. Gillis Electric had more than 100 employees at times, and my parents ended up making a lot of money after I left home. They were very comfortable.

Did that change anything for you?

Well, yeah. Because I just wasn’t into that at all.

Having money?

Yeah. My parents, they became very Republican and moved further and further away from Detroit. They couldn’t understand why I wanted to be in Detroit. See, my mother grew up in the Depression, and her father was a plumber, and the only reason that they had a place to stay was because my grandfather was able to do all the plumbing for all the landlords’ other houses. When my mother was 14, she was the only one that was bringing in any money, and my father was also very poor as a child. He had no shoes, he was an orphan, he was literally farmed out; he had nothing. So voluntary poverty, from my parents’ point of view, was idiotic. For them, you know, choosing to live with the poor, or to take on voluntary poverty like I did was crazy.

What do you think money meant to them?

Life. It meant that they could take care of themselves and their family. They never lived a really ostentatious life. And in fact, my mother in particular, gave a lot of money away to charity, and, she gave a lot of money to the Republican Party, a lot of money. The main thing for my dad was keeping the business going. He always had to have money in reserve if the business had a bad year. He often told me that a lot of people where he came from couldn’t get married because they didn’t have enough money. He said, “I couldn’t get married until I was 28 because I didn’t have enough money. “ So coming here and getting a job and starting the business, was their way to, you know, transcend the poverty of, especially, my dad’s childhood. His brothers were all coal miners.

It sounds like their whole lives really were a struggle away from that poverty.

Yes. Yes. And for my mother, avoiding the appearances of poverty, of maintaining a middle class home, were very important. Getting her hair done every week, always presenting a certain image, you know. My mother, moving from a working class community to a middle class community, that was very important to her. And I’m not putting her down, I’m just saying, that was how she responded to her own upbringing. I used to be upset with her about it, but now I think I understand it better.

How do you understand it, now?

Well, I just think she wanted to give her kids a better life. Where I was born was a working class suburb, an old suburb called Wayne. It was kind of a rustbelt city. My mother campaigned to get us out of there, and we moved to Livonia, which was more of a newer suburb with newer housing and better schools. Although we always went to Catholic school; they hardly had the money for tuition, but they sent us all to Catholic school, because they thought it was better.

They worked very hard. My parents worked very hard. And all my brothers and sisters are hard workers, too. All of us.

How would you draw a distinction between their view of money and yours?

At a certain point, they said, we earned it, it’s ours. We have a right to it. And I think that — and this comes from my faith background– if you have surplus, it’s sort of like what Jesus said: If you have two coats and somebody needs one, you give them your coat. I don’t believe in amassing money or having it when other people need it. I believe in giving it away. And my mom did give a lot of money away; but I prefer a simpler lifestyle than theirs. Yeah. They went on a lot of trips and cruises, they owned a condo in Florida, and I don’t want to do any of that. Considering how much money they had, they could have been much more extravagant. They had millions.

So he really is one of those American success stories.

Oh yes. Mr. Horatio Alger.

How did that distinction arise, do you think?

When I left home at 18, they still had all the other kids at home. When I was a child, the way I was raised, we always had enough. We were comfortable, we weren’t poor. You might have steak as a special thing on somebody’s birthday, but it was usually hamburgers, hotdogs, macaroni and cheese. Nothing fancy, we never went out to eat. Old car. Hand-me-down clothes, I was the oldest so I got something new, so my three sisters always wore what I wore, you know. That’s the way I was raised, and I still kind of live like that. But after I left home, the business took off. And their lifestyle changed, and I went to the convent for four years. I was in the convent from ages 18 to 22, then I moved into Detroit; so my life and theirs were on different trajectories. And it did make a difference; there were times when I didn’t feel that close to my parents.

You lived a certain lifestyle because of their income until you left and went to the convent. Meanwhile, your younger siblings were growing up under different circumstances.

Right. Right. Their views are different from mine.

Does that cause any friction?

Every once in a while, I feel a little sad, because I realize that things I care about, members of my family don’t care about. And my father in particular was very hostile to poor people at times. The thing is, I went and got a degree in social work, and I worked with people who were addicted, and I did Children’s Protective Services. I worked for the state for four years, and I was in the homes of these people. So I had an understanding that my parents didn’t have. I worked at a parish in the inner city for nine years; I was like the assistant pastor, and I lived and worked in the same community.

 Does that disappoint you?

Yeah, yeah. But I have to say this, I always knew that if I got in trouble financially, I could go to my parents. Especially my mother. Oh yeah. I borrowed money from them several times, but I paid them back. One time I borrowed money to buy a house. My mother wanted me to move out of Detroit, because that was her campaign. “Get out of Detroit.” So one time, I wanted to move out of Detroit, and she loaned me the money for a house in Livonia, but then three years later, I sold that house and moved back into Detroit. (Laughs) They weren’t happy.

What do you think your parents taught you about money?

That money is to take care of your family. My parents were builders, they liked to build things, they liked to take old houses and fix them up. And so I’ve done that. In fact, my daughter once said to me, “Mom, you never made enough money for us to live on”. I got defensive and I said, “What did you not have that you needed? Not wanted, needed.” And she goes, “Mom, I always had what I needed, but what you did is, you bought old houses and fixed them up and sold them.” That house that my parents helped me buy in Livonia: I fixed it up and I sold it for $15,000 more. So I was able to put down a large down payment on another house in Detroit close to the parish where I was working. That house was in great shape, and was much cheaper, because it was in Detroit. I learned that from my parents. They would always take old things, like old houses or old cars, and go in and clean it up, fix it up, and make something of it.


After my father died [2013], we started getting our inheritance. When I got the first check, I paid off one credit card. (Laughs) I didn’t want to pay all that interest. Then I got another check, and Catherine says to me: “Mom, you don’t really have any retirement savings, you should put that away.” I said, “Let me have a little fun for a while.” So what did I do? I did some things here in the house: I bought a new rug, I bought a new chair, bought a new computer, just to fix up my house and to make life a little easier. I bought a laptop. Because I could do that, you know?

I had never contributed to Catherine’s college education, I just wasn’t in a position to do it. But when I got the money from my inheritance, I gave her two checks to pay down her loans. I just gave her a check this weekend when she was here. She didn’t want to take the money, and I told her: “I have never paid for any of your college or post graduate education.” I paid for her elementary and high school in Catholic school, I did that. For her college education, I just wasn’t able to. And so I wanted her to take this.

I’m also going to pay for Catherine’s wedding, and she’s a little concerned about the cost. Because it had to be in Chicago, we weren’t able to get a venue in Michigan where it would have been cheaper. And she’s worried about that, and I said, “Grandma and Grandpa are paying for the wedding, Catherine, let’s be honest.” And I told her my parents would be so happy. She’s the oldest grandchild. I can hear them saying: “Put on the nice wedding.” I’m sure my mother’s thrilled from Heaven. And I keep telling Catherine that. The wedding’s going to cost about $15,000 and I’m going to pay for it. But that’s really ironic.

How is it ironic?

That I have that kind of money to pay for a wedding!

What’s that feel like?

It’s really weird. I’ve never had that kind of money in my whole life. Never had that kind of money. It’s a little scary, too, because the money is kind of dribble-drabbling in because they’re selling the business, and I’m a little scared because, this may sound stupid, but it’s honest: As long as my father was alive, I could go to him. He would give me grief about it, he’d go rah-rah-rah-rah about it, but I knew I could go to him if something happened. Now that I’m getting the money, you know, my share of what’s left, I am solely responsible for this, and I have to make it last as long as I live. And it’s a little scary.

So I did put some of the money away in Edward Jones, in a fund I feel good about: Calvert Socially Responsible Funds. I found a financial advisor, and you know, I have to, because the social security I get and the pension I get from the church are not enough to live on. I have to use this money to live on, especially if I live for another 20 or 30 years. So I it’s a little scary, you know. But again, like everything else, many times I’ve been scared that I wouldn’t have what I needed, and I just trust God. In a way, this is no different.

Did the inheritance change you in any unexpected ways?

Well, like this weekend. Catherine was in town. I sent her out to a couple bakeries to get prepared food for the weekend, because I’m not able to cook right now because I broke my ankle. I would never have done that before, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. To buy food at the grocery–that was all, you know.

It’s freeing, but again, this is the initial blush. I have to get serious here and invest this money for my retirement, and you know, I’ve got to be careful. And Catherine keeps reminding me of that. I told her: “Let me have a little fun first, you know? Let me just be able to do some things that I haven’t been able to do.”

What makes you most proud in terms of the way that she handles money?

Well, she pays her bills on time; she’s very responsible. And, for her wedding, she found a dress for $400 that she really likes. She did some research, and she said, “Mom, I’m not spending $10,000 on a wedding dress. That’s wasteful.” And she told Sam, “You are not going to spend more than $500 on a ring.” She told me one of her friends spent $20,000 on an engagement ring. And it just seems, in our society, there’s such a separation; and this is based on statistics. When I teach sociology, I do a couple chapters on income stratification. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and Catherine’s very aware of that. And she just doesn’t want to buy into, you know. And my parents, even when they had money later in life, they still had those vestiges of, “don’t waste on extravagances.”


Do you have specific plans for your money?

Well, I did give a lot of it away already. I haven’t been able to donate money to charities that I care about, because I’ve just been able to make it myself, you know? So I did drop some significant money on some charities that I care about. One of them is the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change; I’ve given them $3,000 in the last year. And I’ve given money to my parish, which is an inner city parish that’s run by the Capuchins, and we have a lot of outreach ministries, I’ve given my parish $3,500 in the last year. So those are the two charities that I care about the most, but then there’s others. I gave another group $2,000 and another group $2,000. I’ve probably given about, of the money I’ve received from the inheritance, I’ve probably given at least a quarter of it away. I gave Voices for Earth Justice $20,000, so we could complete our project in Detroit.

You told Catherine, “Let me have fun for a while.”  Had  you felt deprived of that fun, or was it, hey, let me just cut loose finally?

In order to do the work I wanted to do, I wasn’t going to have a lot of money. So it’s a choice you make, you know. But I have had the most wonderful time with people! For example, in terms of food and sharing food with people, I don’t think there’s anything better than a potluck.

One of the places I had the most fun with people was when I did prison ministry, and I would go in as part of a group of volunteers, and spend a long weekend with these women, and it was sad, it was pathetic, but we also had a lot of fun. And it cost nothing. You can set the stage, but you cannot make fun happen. Fun comes out of bonds of community, and those bonds, you can’t buy them.

Sometimes people confuse poverty with destitution. Poverty is determined by the standards of a particular culture. People in some countries would consider our “poor” people rich by their standards. If you’re destitute, you don’t have the basic needs met. You’re hungry; food, clothing and shelter needs aren’t met. Destitution is what’s happening in parts of the Middle East right now. But poverty or a simple lifestyle really is very freeing, I think.

What would you say matters most to you in life?

Doing the will of God.

Can you explain that to me?

Well, for me, as a Christian, Jesus is kind of my guru, and he teaches me what the will of God is about. So I could be a Buddhist or, I could be any religion, and the teachings of that religion would help me to know God and to know God’s ways and to know the will of God, but as a Christian, Jesus is the one: I’ve listened to him. His voice has come through the Scriptures, it comes through the community, and it comes through my heart. So it’s a Spirit that is alive in the world, his spirit. That’s why the church is important to me, and not the institutional church, but the everyday people that are living, trying to live this life that I’m trying to live. So community is extremely important to me, and family is part of that. One of the painful parts of my life has been that some of my family do not share, are not in this other community with me. Some are and some aren’t.


I just think that, in the way the world is now, (and I’ve seen this in my adult life, and Obama talks about this), that income inequality is a big issue. And I’m very aware of that, and I’ve seen it get worse as I’ve gotten older. So I want to address it in my own life and not feed into it in any way.In some ways, I am a participant in the inequality. I am a participant, because I’m a privileged person in many ways, you know? By education, my whiteness, I’m privileged in many ways. The question is: how can I use my advantages and blessings, what I have, to make a difference in the time I have left?

And I think it’s so ironic, because on our money it says “In God We Trust.” On our money. It’s like, where are you going to put your trust? And there’s that Scripture passage where Jesus says, “No servant can serve two masters….you cannot serve God and money” in Matthew, chapter 6.

To me, wealth is life as God created it, the components of life: Air, soil, water, sun. I became an environmentalist through a conversion process I went through in my fifties: where I started to see where our wealth really is, with the giftedness of Creation. That’s a big conversion process I went through. Before that, I was always working on human social problems like poverty and sexism and racism. I saw that income inequality has an even bigger perspective: some people have access to the clean air and fertile soil, and others live next to the trash dumps and coal-fired power plants. Money, human currency is not our wealth. We’re wasting the deposit that’s been given to us, a one time deposit, Earth.

Our wealth is this planet, and the life, all the life forms that have evolved over millions of years. Fussing around with genetics, playing around with genetically modifying organisms, to me, is a desecration of the holy. I’m also so upset about all the many forms of pollution. That’s why I do the work I do.


See also my interview with Nicola Krebill who does urban farming in New Orleans and has a deep and satisfying commitment to austerity.