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She Opens Doors: Marie Wilkinson

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Image: Wikipedia

You can get angry at the things people do, but you can’t hate any person,” says Marie Wilkinson while grasping the torture whip she inherited from her father-in-law, an escaped slave. “I take this whip and I teach a lot of people not to hate.” Years past any state’s retirement age, Wilkinson, 91, sifts diligently through fair housing concerns, phoned offers of volunteerism, and photographs of young children she has helped to dignified adulthood.

Fewer than four minutes have passed, and I understand how Marie Wilkinson has been selected as the recipient of the Catholic Church’s highest honor for missionary work in America. The Lumen Christi Award—the Latin means “Light of Christ”—was presented to Wilkinson last October by the Catholic Church Extension Society, an organization that distributes more than $16 million each year to missionary efforts in poor Catholic dioceses throughout the United States and its territories. (See www.catholicextension. org.)

Though Marie Wilkinson’s civil-rights crusade began long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat or Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., marched in Birmingham, Marie’s legacy of charming every prejudicial obstacle in her path is fittingly rewarded in the wake of our nation’s worst hate crime. But Lumen Christi Award judges selected Wilkinson over more than 50 selfless, U.S. bishop-nominated candidates months before the September 11 disasters. Judges included Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, Jose Roberto Gutierrez, cofounder and president of the Hispanic Telecommunications Network, Sondra Healy, chairwoman of Turtle Wax, Inc., actress Catherine Hicks of TV’s 7th Heaven, Bishop Joseph Howze of Biloxi, Mississippi, and Ethel Kennedy, director emeritus of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

“I’m ageless,” says Wilkinson through a warm, weathered grin. “That’s why I never get old.” Then she freely offers that she was born the same year as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, quietly hoping that I would avoid doing my homework. Born Marie LeBeau in New Orleans, Wilkinson was raised a devout Catholic, studied business at now defunct Straight College, visited Chicago at age 20 and met Charles Wilkinson on a blind date in nearby Aurora, Illinois.

“I was engaged to another man in New Orleans, but Charles fell in love with me and I fell in love with him.” She retreated to Louisiana briefly, returning to Illinois for good in 1927.

Take Me to the River

“Something else was keeping me here, too. I loved the river,” she says of Illinois’s scenic Fox River. “I thought it was beautiful, and it reminded me of home.”

Memories of Wilkinson’s onetime life in the French Quarter do not always invoke smiles, however. Rivers may trickle down mountains by way of nature. But prejudice trickles down from teacher to teacher of hate—sometimes human nature. Wilkinson remembers the early hurt of sweeping segregation in Louisiana schools, restaurants, stores and buses.

“If we were allowed to go into a store, we couldn’t try on any clothes. Only the white people could do that. There were certain places you couldn’t go—that was the South.”

She heard the North was different. Perhaps, these had been unfounded rumors. She was alarmed at the separation by color in this former Illinois farming community. “There were some lovely people, but it was very, very prejudiced,” she recalls of early Aurora, eyes closed, while gently rocking her own body in an arthritis sufferer’s lift chair that she loves to show off. “Even in the Catholic Church there were not many African Americans. I was shocked about that, too. So I knew God had put me here for a reason.”

Marie and Charles married in 1930, moving into a modest two-level home on Aurora’s North View Street. More than 60 years of volunteerism and prayer kept them bonded in faith and community before Charles passed away. Marie remained in their home, on a street now bearing her name. Thousands know how to find what has simply become known as “Marie’s house.” This is where the poor, the hungry, the displaced, the unemployed, the sick and the mistreated have wandered for decades. And they always found the door open.

Justice for All

While she carefully fixes her salt-and-pepper hair beneath a colorful cap, we settle in on covered furniture with a splash of area rugs beneath our feet and a papering of awards and memorabilia watching us from all walls. The phone rings, she grabs it on the cordless, and I feel for a man named Mike on the other end. “We’ve never met but somebody told me you were gonna call because you wanted to help. Are you sure you wanna journey with me?—’Cause honey, you’re gonna be busy.”

And busy she has been. Having worked directly with five of the past mayors of Aurora, Wilkinson braved the establishment from the start. One leader insisted that she couldn’t change people. “I told him, ‘I can’t, but God can.’ And then he told me, ‘But you might get hurt.’ And I told him. ‘Then it would be for a good reason.’”

Eyebrows raised early as Wilkinson began pulling Hispanic migrant factory workers from the boxcars they were living in. They had no water, no electricity. Shoes would have been a luxury, for she found hundreds of weary and bleeding feet wrapped in nothing more than cloth towels.

Not only did Wilkinson find them shoes, but she gracefully bullied factory owners until they resolved to find year-round work for employees so that families could stay together. “I said, ‘You’ve got all these factories, so why not keep the people here and let them work?’” she remembers. And she charged City Hall until schools and adequate housing were built to accommodate the growing number of families that had moved to the river community.

Wilkinson also arranged for a Spanish-speaking priest to be brought in from the city because the local pastor had not thought about the Hispanic workers’ desire for Confession. “[The priest] was there from 9 a.m. to midnight, hearing confessions in a room over a grocery store.”

Regardless of the obvious injustices Wilkinson brought to light, some things just weren’t getting better. The lines grow deeper between her eyebrows as she recalls the era. “It seemed like only certain people were allowed to live on the east side of Aurora and so I said, ‘God, tell me what you want me to do.’”

Worlds ahead of time, Wilkinson realized that someone needed to begin discussions about fair housing laws. Through the Human Relations Commission she founded in 1964, she is credited with the first Fair Housing Ordinance in Illinois. “Things are wide open now in this city. You can live anywhere and be free. If you can’t, come see me. But if you can’t keep up your property, you bring in gangs and alcoholism, don’t come to me. That’s your fault. You ruined your own neighborhood.”

Maybe not an obvious dilemma, but prejudice ran rampant in cemeteries as well. Only Caucasians were allowed to buy burial lots in the nicest part of a local cemetery. Wilkinson was noticeably angered at the mere suggestion, and a wealthy socialite came to her aid. “She said, ‘Marie, I’m going to buy several lots in this section—all for your people. Because you are something else.’ Well, it was a long time before anyone died, but when they saw [an African-American] man being buried, people ran out to create trouble. But I said, ‘We own them.’ And the wealthy woman came out and faced them and said, ‘They are hers!’” Marie enjoys reliving this moment and she laughs.

Wilkinson publicized the needs of those whom community leaders and media outlets once preferred to ignore. She helped to launch more than 60 charitable organizations including Feed the Hungry Program, Hesed House Homeless Shelter, Breaking Free Drug Program, the Catholic Social Action Conference, SciTech Youth Science Museum, and the local chapter of the Urban League—to name a few. She established college funds for underprivileged children and inclusion guidelines for the disabled.

And when refused a seat at Hart’s Drive-In (a now-closed diner) in the late 1940s, Wilkinson won her case before the Illinois State Appellate Court. Now, Mrs. Wilkinson eats anywhere she pleases.

Come to Mama

Her insight into societal issues was and remains arresting. Thirty years before the national trend, Wilkinson realized the needs of single mothers—sometimes abandoned women—who were left to care for their children. How were they to earn a living and care for their preschool-aged children? And if they did one but not the other, what would become of society when those children became adults?

Together with a group of future-minded residents, Wilkinson raised $46,000 for a child-care center in Aurora. “But we needed more money, another $10,000,” Marie recalls. “I called the bishop of Rockford and he said, ‘When do you need this money?’ I said, ‘Yesterday was too late.’”

That was 33 years ago. The Marie Wilkinson Child Development Center thrives today, as does Marie when she is welcomed there by flocks of children. They hold up their latest projects, paintings waving in the air in front of the seasoned but never tired eyes of Marie Wilkinson.

Much like the countless adults, volunteer coordinators, nonprofit launchers, mayors, priests and friends who wave their ideas before Marie for advice, these children recognize her wisdom. They all want Marie to say, “That’s beautiful. Keep going. Your heart is in the right place.”

But she won’t say it unless she means it. And people listen either way, because the lady seems to know what she is doing.

“I’ve tried to be an advocate for the persecuted, those who just weren’t getting a fair deal,” says Wilkinson. “God points me in the right direction. I know it is God, because the things I felt passionate about were always 30 years ahead of their time.”

There is still a lot of work to do, she admits. “You’ve got all these people on public aid. Get them off public aid,” she urges. “Let them become nurses, teachers and so on, and you’ll have better neighborhoods.

“My other advice? Don’t forget to be kind to children and old people. Because they both need you.”

The Power of Leather

Wilkinson’s two children were influenced by their mother’s faith and lifelong passion for justice—even if they were not always around to see her in action. Her son, Donald, died of cancer in the 1970s and her daughter, Sheila Scott-Wilkinson, left Aurora to study theater in Europe when she was only 16. An accomplished international actress and now president of the Los Angeles nonprofit organization Theatre of Hearts/Youth First—a program enabling high-risk children to receive a fine-arts education—Scott-Wilkinson marvels now as she looks back at both the humility and bravery of her parents.

“Everybody was welcome in that little bungalow,” says Scott-Wilkinson. She recalls everyone from priests and bishops to the hungry and homeless dropping by the Wilkinson home. Extra money was scarce, but Charles and Marie Wilkinson were always quick to give away their last pennies to a person in need.

“Any kind of challenges,” Scott-Wilkinson says, “and they’d pray about it.” Many moms convince their children that everything will always work out. Scott-Wilkinson recalls that her mother always said, “We’ll pray about it.”

Marie Wilkinson says that prayers move mountains, and she has seen more than her share of boulders. Inspired by the slave whip her father-in-law gave her, Wilkinson still clutches the dry leather when speaking out against hate to classrooms of children. “When my father-in-law escaped from slavery, he took this whip with him. His mother was there, and he didn’t want to leave her behind and know that she was going to be whipped,” she says, helping me to examine the density of the triple-braided cowhide and the places where it is frayed from use.

Her father-in-law witnessed horrors beyond his own physical tortures, some of which Wilkinson graphically explains. “But he never had any hate for anyone. You can get angry at the things people do, but you can’t hate any person.

“He said, ‘Marie, take this whip. With this, you can teach a lot of people not to hate.’”

He was right.

The Lumen Christi Award

The Catholic Church Extension Society, fund-raiser for Catholic missionary work in America since 1905, invites all archbishops and bishops in the United States to submit nominations for the Lumen Christi Awards, presented annually since 1978. Award nominees have distinguished themselves by exemplary missionary service to the U.S. Church.

An internal panel from Catholic Extension reads each nomination and accompanying materials with care, generally limiting themselves to six finalists. These nominees are considered by the panel of judges (named in the accompanying article), all known for their own exceptional humanitarian efforts. Nominations are intended to recognize those who work quietly and without reward to spread the gospel among the poor, isolated and persecuted in the United States.

The award’s first recipient was a laywoman, though many recipients have been priests and/or members of religious communities. Marie Wilkinson is the 24th recipient to be honored, the fifth laywoman and the second person from the state of Illinois.

The award presentation typically includes Mass, dinner, a press conference and a public reception. During these ceremonies, a generous cash award is given both to the recipient and to the diocese from which the winner is chosen.

Carrie Swearingen, director of communications for Catholic Church Extension Society, writes from Evanston, Illinois.