Long a soft-spoken fighter for justice and peace, Monica Cavanagh Erler was a founder in 1974 of Women’s Advocates, the first shelter for battered women in the country, fellow advocates say.
In 1982, she led a hard-nosed charge to change federal regulations and won funding opportunities for women and for battered women’s shelters throughout the nation that had never before been possible.
Erler, of Little Canada, died Sept. 28. She was 91.
Through her funding strategy — which she took all the way to Washington, D.C. — Erler helped shelters pay off mortgages. That enabled more to open and serve an overwhelming demand, say fellow advocates.
Later in her career she worked with parents at risk of abusing their kids. As program director of Parents Anonymous, then a peer support network to prevent child abuse, she reached out to parents at meetings statewide. Her husband, Art, recalls driving her from town to town, until her retirement in 1990.
“Together, we expanded chapters and regionalized the delivery system, and Monica was in charge of the regional offices,” said Joci Tilsen, who in the late 1980s was executive director of the nonprofit. “It was a pleasure to work with her because she was smart and efficient and thoughtful and cared deeply about the humanness of every woman and every family.”
In 1941, Monica met Art, a DeLaSalle High School student, while they shared lead roles in a play at her school, St. Anthony High.
They married in 1945. While rearing six kids, she attended St. Catherine’s University and earned a degree in humanities from the University of Minnesota.
Monica Erler was long involved in The Grail, a faith-based women’s organization, and traveled to conferences to promote peace, justice and renewal of the earth, said her daughter, Mary Peters.
In the 1960s, Erler became a feminist. She campaigned for Democrat Eugene McCarthy during his 1968 presidential bid.
She met lawyers involved in the campaign, including the late Ken Tilsen, and worked for him as he defended American Indian Movement followers during the Wounded Knee occupation. His daughter, Joci, became Erler’s lifelong friend, as did another women’s advocate, Pat Murphy.
They formed a collective which, in 1974, opened the nation’s first shelter for battered women and children, Women’s Advocates, in a big house they renovated on Grand Avenue. Later, they bought a neighboring house and connected them.
In 1982, Erler worked with Minnesota Women in Housing to change federal regulations and allow battered women’s shelters to receive Community Development Block Grants for the first time. The change also granted women who were leaving shelters priority status for housing subsidies in the community, Murphy said.
“Importantly,” she added, “Monica went on to provide the leadership and direction that qualified Women’s Advocates as a housing option eligible for federal housing subsidies for each woman and family housed in the shelter.”
Erler later expanded her pilot project, Murphy said, “providing ongoing funds for operations and capital projects for battered women’s programs throughout the country.”
Erler is preceded in death by son, Laurence; parents John and Catherine Cavanagh; and siblings Catherine, Leo and Margaret.
Survivors, in addition to spouse Art and daughter Mary Peters, include sons Stephen, John, David and Jeremy; 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
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