CHAMPAIGN - It was a typical call for the Catholic Worker House, a plea for help from a woman kicked out of her apartment by a son-in-law.
Ellen McDowell, longtime financial officer and all-around troubleshooter at the shelter, had taken many such calls over the years. But this one held a 22-year-old surprise.
The woman had agreed to stay with her son-in-law after her daughter left him, to help care for the children. But on that cold morning last fall, he ordered her out by the end of the day. She had nowhere to go.
She slept on a sofa at the shelter the first night. McDowell then set to work finding a reasonably priced hotel room where the woman could stay until she got back on her feet.
She called the Best Western on South Neil Street, near the woman's job at a gas station. The receptionist who answered immediately offered to help.
?I know the Catholic Worker House,? she told a stunned McDowell. ?I was the first person who ever stayed there.?
?I was just blown away,? said McDowell, who saw it as just another sign of divine intervention - like the food that shows up just in time for an otherwise meager lunch, or donors who suddenly bring in money when a bill is looming.
?It's sort of like you put your hand out to the universe, and help will come,? she said. ?Your part is to give it your whole heart.?
McDowell, by many accounts the heart and soul of the Catholic Worker House, will hand over the checkbook to a new financial officer in June, retiring from the volunteer post she has held for 14 years. At 78, she still radiates a graceful energy, but she thinks it's time for a transition.
?You never know, when you get to be my age, when you're going to climb the golden staircase,? she said matter-of-factly.
A gifted artist, McDowell hopes to have more time to paint and write. But she'll continue volunteering at the shelter's soup kitchen, ?because I would miss that a lot.?
Not half as much as she'll be missed, said longtime volunteer Jim Kurley. ?It's her faith in this place right here, and her devotion, that's keeping it going,? he said.
McDowell dismisses such talk. She takes pains to point out other volunteers working at the lunchtime soup kitchen, in between phone calls to a Maine shelter to track down the brother of a homeless man taken ill in Champaign.
?I don't think I'm making a difference,? she said. ?But I love the work. I feel that the work is what's important, and I'm being allowed to do it. It's a privilege.?
McDowell's career as a full-time volunteer didn't start until her 50s, after she had completed another phase of her life as a wife and mother. But her interest in the Catholic Worker movement began decades earlier.
Born in East St. Louis, she grew up seeing the bread lines and poverty of the Great Depression. Her father, Clark Attebery, had job security as a government meat inspector at the stockyards. But many of her friends' fathers were out of work. She remembers finding hobos eating plates of food on the back porch almost every day after school.
?That would have been intrinsic to my mother's idea of faith,? she said. ?If you have something, share it.?
Her mother, Lydia Howard Attebery, was a ?devout but feisty? Irish Catholic. She took her children to black churches in East St. Louis at a time when Catholics were forbidden to enter other churches and the races rarely mixed. She rejoiced at the Vatican II reforms ushered in by Pope John XXIII, saying ?windows were opening.?
?When I came home from school and said, ?Sister So-and-So says all Protestants are going to hell,' my mother would say, ?Rubbish.' And I believed her. She was my role model. My mother helped me choose the good and let the other stuff go. She was an extraordinary woman. I miss her every day.?
Ellen Jane Attebery, as she was known then, was one of only two women out of 76 in her 1942 graduating class at St. Teresa's Academy to go to college. Her mother preferred St. Louis University, her father preferred she not go at all - with an older brother in college, money was an issue - but Ellen wanted to go away to school.
Lydia Attebery, a former teacher, felt higher education was important, so she agreed to take her only daughter to visit the University of Illinois. She believed women needed ?something to make the spirit soar.?
They found a basement room in an Urbana house with kitchen privileges for $11 a month. Ellen got a tuition deferral, took two jobs stuffing envelopes and planting tomatoes and beans for the horticulture department, and the family somehow scraped together enough for her to get by.
She started out as a classics major, but soon realized her only career option might be teaching - anathema to her mother, who had made her promise not to become a teacher. Lydia Attebery, who didn't marry until the ripe old age of 26, considered it to be a ?very isolating career for a woman.?
She decided to major in fine arts and won several prizes for her work. An oil painting displayed in the dining room of her home on Elm Boulevard in Champaign, of a veiled woman praying in an old East St. Louis church, won a $100 prize in a 1946 exhibit of central Illinois artists.
During her senior year, she met Austin McDowell, who was working on a master's degree in music after a stint in the Navy. They married in January 1947, and she received her bachelor's degree the following month. The couple had six children in 10 years; one died in infancy. A seventh, Peter, was born later, when McDowell was 43.
?I loved being a mother,? she said. ?I loved having a bunch of kids. We were a little community. I loved watching them interact. Our kids genuinely care about each other.?
Reflecting her mother's talent, Ann is a local watercolor artist. The eldest, Mary, is a psychiatric nurse in Nashville. John is a New York composer, Andrew is a UI telecommunications technician and Peter is program coordinator at the Chicago Cultural Center. Another son, James, died in Vietnam in 1972.
When they were young, Ellen McDowell was known for sewing elaborate Halloween costumes, volunteering with the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and chastising neighborhood boys for killing ants. She arranged annual camping trips to Pere Marquette State Park each Memorial Day with other families who had young children, a tradition that continues today.
?Now they're grown and bringing their own children,? she said.
Perched on the bluffs above the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, with no sign of commercial life for miles, the park offered a chance to sing songs, play music around the campfire and gaze at stars ?hanging out of the sky,? she said.
?You'd sleep out there with the copperheads and lizards and cows. It was just like going back in time,? recalled longtime friend Dan Perrino, whose family also vacationed with the McDowells in Michigan for years.
McDowell had become acquainted with the Catholic Worker movement in college, when she picked up a copy of the Catholic Worker newspaper in the library of the UI's Newman Foundation. She found the teachings on poverty, pacifism and social justice inspiring.
?I couldn't put it down,? she said. ?It seemed to have so much truth to me. It added dimension to my Catholicism.?
She devoured anything written by Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, sending her notes when she liked a particular article or book.
Day occasionally responded, mentioning that she'd lived briefly in Champaign-Urbana while attending the UI from 1914 to 1916.
?She said she always liked to walk out to the edge of town,? McDowell recalled. The prairie, Day wrote, ?was like gazing at the sea.?
In 1963, McDowell got the chance to meet Day. She had joined her husband out east for a conference and was visiting her brother in New York. Shunning the usual Big Apple sights, she decided to visit the Catholic Worker newspaper and soup kitchen in the Bowery. Day wasn't there, but a few days later, McDowell and her brother drove out to the Catholic Worker farm on Staten Island and were granted a few minutes with Day.
?I felt as though I were going to see Francis of Assisi,? McDowell remembered. ?In her presence, a person could only feel, ?I ought to be doing more.'?
Day, who had been praying with a friend, was tough as granite and not one for small talk. But she opened up once McDowell mentioned she was from East St. Louis, where Day had enlisted one of her first subscribers.
?It was just a milestone for me to be there,? McDowell said.
Back home, she began to wonder what she could contribute, as a middle-class faculty wife. Family duty intervened when son Peter came along. Once he was in high school, she decided she was ready to do more.
It was 1980, and the Catholic Worker House had just opened in Urbana. She started by simply taking meals to the house.
?I had only worked there one or two times before I thought, ?Christ is here. This is where he is, walking among us,'? she re-called. ?You get a very strong sense that is where Jesus would be.?
She gradually got more involved, and in 1989 when the shelter needed to find a new house, McDowell was tapped to lead the relocation effort.
She formed a committee - not the usual mode of business for the shelter, which relies on donations and volunteers, shuns government funding and has no official director - and rounded up volunteers from local parishes. The group decided to focus on the shelter's most important mission: feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless.
?We didn't exactly soft-pedal the pacifist point of view, but we didn't advertise it either,? she said. ?We didn't have time for activism.?
It took two years - and about $225,000 - to buy and renovate the house at 317 S. Randolph St., C, which had to meet stringent city codes.
McDowell continued as financial officer, helping create a popular $10-a-month club for donors to pay utility bills, overseeing the shelter's budget and writing thank-you notes to nearly every contributor, no matter how small, ?just to give them a feeling they are part of the work - which they are.? She's the one everyone calls, Kurley said, if something needs to get done.
McDowell admits to some frustration, even anger, at the behavior of some homeless clients over the years. But she sees that as her weakness, not theirs.
?I don't think God expects us to change people. I think we make offers. They come as they are, and we can feed them,? she said. ?If they can find an environment where they feel comfortable and secure, and find acceptance, then we've done what we can do. They can take it from there.?
Perrino twice tried to nominate McDowell for a community award, but she demurred.
?Ellen has always struck me as a great humanitarian. She's an incredible person,? he said. ?It's just unfortunate that we don't have more people like that.?
You can reach Julie Wurth at (217) 351-5226 or via e-mail at email@example.com.