AURORA—Calcutta had Mother Teresa. Aurora had Marie Wilkinson.
While St. Teresa of Calcutta is known world-wide and Marie Wilkinson is not, their love of God and neighbor, and their joyful and persistent action to improve the lives of others, was similar in many ways.
Making sure the people received food and clothing or jobs, if that was their need, and working for justice for all, was Wilkinson’s life work.
She came to Aurora in 1929, just as The Depression was about to begin throwing millions of people out of work.
As a young woman, newly arrived from New Orleans — slender, attractive and sporting smart attire — she soon caught the eye of Charles Wilkinson, who ran an auto repair business. He proposed and they were married.
But as the poverty-stricken populous increased, Marie’s heart was moved. The gentle housewife started collecting food and clothing for the needy at her house, instructing donors to deliver through the basement window.
Her home on View Street became a store house of loving concern for those in need, and a place of much prayer.
It was the start of one of Aurora’s longest-standing food pantries, which today has grown into two well-stocked pantries, available to all, including the unemployed, the underemployed, low-income seniors, veterans looking for work, and anyone else who needs a helping hand. She also began a child care center that today bears her name.
“Marie said she did nothing on her own, but that she was always listening to God,” said her friend of many decades, Kathy Snow, a member of St. Anne Parish, in Oswego, who is writing Wilkinson’s life story. She is working on the book with input from Wilkinson’s daughter, Sheila, who lives in California.
It is no surprise that Wilkinson, at first a member of Holy Angels Parish and later of St. Rita of Cascia Parish, received almost 40 honors and awards including the Lumen Christi Award in 2001, the church’s highest honor for missionary work. In 1991 she received the Papal Award of Membership to the Order of St. Gregory the Great. She was named “Catholic Woman of the Year” by the Deanery Council of Catholic Women, in 1994.
Today, two food pantries, and a garden plot helping to supply fresh vegetables, also bear her name. And, as Wilkinson insisted, the help is always given in a way to ensure the dignity of the receiver. She did not rank people by racial, religious or social standing distinctions, those who knew her said. She believed that everyone has an equal chance to accept God’s love, and all people deserve equal dignity, Snow remarked.
An incident a few decades ago was particularly thought provoking, Snow recalls:
One morning, Marie heard a knock on her door. She answered it to find a bedraggled young man standing there.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
That’s all he said, recounted Snow. Marie took him inside and gave him a meal. Then, he thanked her and left.
As she watched him walk down the street she called her neighbor to tell her of the encounter. The neighbor could see no one walking by. Marie pointed out that the young man was walking right past the neighbor’s driveway. The neighbor said that she could see not see anyone on the street at all.
“I knew then that he was from God,” Wilkinson told Snow.
It is generally believed the young man was an angel, said Snow, who met with Wilkinson every Sunday afternoon for about a year to gather material for the memoir.
A fundraising effort to continue Wilkinson’s legacy, including production of the book, is being undertaken through the Marie Wilkinson Legacy Fund, c/o Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley, 111 West Downer Place, Suite 312, Aurora Illinois, 60506.
“We still recall her sayings. We call them ‘Marieisms,’” said Snow, who first met Wilkinson when they both attended St. Rita Parish.
“She was always saying: ‘Let’s pray.’” recalls Snow. “She was always cheerful. She spoke truth, not the truth, but truth. That was her great weapon—if she spoke truth, people couldn’t argue with her.
“Marie had never driven, so I would drive her home after church committee meetings. She was very intelligent. There was that sparkle in her eyes. She was very wise and people would come to her for advice,” said Snow.
In 1958, Wilkinson was named “Catholic Woman of the Year” by the Rockford Diocese for zeal in apostolic work, particularly among the Mexican people. In 1961, together with the people of St. Peter Parish, she started the Vincent De Paul Center, here, a national organization gives clothing and other necessities to the needy.
No one could resist her when she asked for donations— not CEOs nor politicians, not clergy nor the mayors of the city, nor the man or woman on the street, Snow said..
“Everyone knew Marie. She was stylist and very dignified. She was fun. And, by the end of her life she had everyone on speed dial. Marie never claimed any credit, she always gave God the glory.”
Through the years, Wilkinson visited many schools in Aurora to recount her story and to share her Catholic faith.
Bonnie Wegman, who now volunteers at one of the food pantries, recalls Wilkinson coming to her fourth grade class to talk about how her father-in-law escaped the slavery in the South, before slavery was ended by the bloody American Civil War in 1865. Some 600,000 American’s died in that struggle.
“I was in fourth grade in 1954, at Our Lady of Good Council Catholic School,” Wegman said.
“I remember her coming and telling about how her father-in-law escaped slavery, in Kentucky. She showed us the whip used on slaves that he had brought with him,” she recalled.
Wilkinson’s father-in-law could not bring his mother with him when he escaped to Illinois, but he brought the whip that had been used on the slaves, so that it could not be used on his mother, she said.
Wilkinson would also give out replicas of the Pilgrim Virgin statue to the school children at every Catholic school in Aurora, and encouraged them to pray the Holy Rosary.
In the 1950s, when Wilkinson heard that migrant workers from Mexico—many of whom worked on the railroad and resided in railroad box cars—had no priest to administer the Sacraments, she petitioned the diocese to send priests for the Hispanic population in Aurora, so they would not have to travel to Joliet, especially if they needed the last rights.
“People were dying without the last rights, which really upset her. Marie would take her statue of the Pilgrim Virgin to them and pray the Rosary with them,” Snow said.
And, being Marie, she didn’t stop petitioning in prayer until her prayers were answered.
According to Snow, a few years after coming to Aurora, Wilkinson, then a young mother suffered a near-death experience due to cancer and a heart condition.
“She prayed that if God would extend her life, she would devote her life to his work,” Snow added. The near death experience is detailed in the soon-to-be published memoir.
Her prayer was answered.
“Her 100th birthday party was attended by caucasians, Hispanics, African Americans, Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Lutherans. As she surveyed the gathering, Wilkinson commented, “This is what Heaven will look like,” Snow recalled.
“Marie was fun, very fun; nothing presumptuous about her,” her friend said, adding that Aurora would be a very different place, if she had never come here.
Marie Wilkinson was born Marie Le Beau in Louisiana in 1909, and died of natural causes at the age of 101. She was not pictured on postal stamps nor quoted on the international stage, but her memory is revered just as devotedly by the people of Illinois’ second largest city.
A bronze statue of her seated on a bench just outside of the Aurora Public Library on Benson Street depicts a smiling, welcoming Wilkinson, holding a whip and a rose, with one hand extended.
People passing the statue still make offerings in her name for those less fortunate—a bottle of water sometimes is placed in the statue’s hand, or a box of cookies. Sometimes, a blanket is draped around the shoulders for a homeless person to claim.
Marie is still helping those in need.