ANDERSON—The day after he retired in 1991, McLester McDowell went looking for volunteer work.
He found it at a nearby homeless shelter, and shortly after started serving meals at the Anderson Emergency Soup Kitchen. Since then he has rarely missed a day of serving the poor, hungry, homeless or sick.
McDowell, 82, still volunteers at the soup kitchen five days a week and serves on its board. He also spends three days a week at Clean Start, which provides laundry and other services for the homeless.
He has served on the Board of Commissioners of the Anderson Housing Authority for more than 20 years, visits veterans at a nursing home, sits with the sick and dying at a local hospice, and serves as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion at St. Mary of the Angels Church in Anderson.
The Housing Authority recently dedicated the McLester McDowell Achievement Center in his honor. It will host community meetings, classes and other activities.
It was a huge surprise, McDowell said, adding that for him, volunteering is not a way to get recognition, but a blessing.
“He’s a solid Catholic Christian who has no patience for people who just listen to the word and don’t do anything with it,” said Franciscan Father Aubrey McNeil, pastor at St. Mary of the Angels. “He’s not simply a bearer of the word, but a doer. McLester is a wonderful person who would do anything for anybody.”
Born and raised in the Anderson area, his parents originally were sharecroppers. His mother moved into town after his father died and raised 14 children on her own.
McDowell first heard about the Catholic faith from Father Francis Gorman, who visited his neighbors and started the parish that would become St. Mary of the Angels.
Raised a Baptist, McDowell started attending Mass while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Over the years, he came to love the faith, and studied it devoutly. He came into the church when he was in his 70s.
He attends Mass three times a week, prays daily, and is a third degree Knight of Columbus.
My faith means everything to me, I don’t know any other way to say it,” he said.
He has a brother and sister in Anderson and a sister in Columbia. Although he never married, many friends make up an extended family of sorts for him.
When McDowell got out of the U.S. Army in 1953, he took a job with the South Carolina Employment Service, and cared for his mother until her death in 1969.
There are no regrets, he said, because God has been good to him.
“I couldn’t imagine not honoring my mother when she needed me, and God has richly blessed me for it,” he said. “He’s given me a long life and the chance to do His will. If I can just help somebody, then I know what I’m doing is not in vain. I know I’m doing God’s will. I’ve seen how good God can be to you. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”