Inside Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, where she was the first woman ordained as clergy, the Rev. Elizabeth Downing Heller was known informally as the mother of God.
A child, looking at her silver hair and regal presence, blurted out “Are you the mother of God?” explained the Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, the church’s senior pastor. The nickname stuck, he said, and she would tolerate it with a smile.
Heller, an art lover who amassed an outsized collection of religious works that now fill the walls of her church, died on July 27. She was 92.
“Her impact on the life of this congregation and the lives of so many people is really profound,” said Hart-Andersen. “She was a mentor to many. She broadened our horizons, in terms of art, in terms of the role of women in the church. She had this infectious laughter and smile, so that even if she was taking you to a place you hadn’t thought you were going to go, she would graciously bring you.”
Heller was born in Circleville, Ohio, in 1926. She graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago in 1950, prepared for a role in the church that did not yet exist.
She spent her early career at the University of Minnesota in campus ministry. Following the United Presbyterian Church’s decision to ordain women to pastoral ministry, she became an assistant pastor and then an associate pastor at Westminster. The church’s Heller Commons is named for her.
Heller began collecting religious art as a seminary student, and her three-bedroom condo across the street from the church was filled with paintings, pottery and sculptures, floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall.
There was a Marc Chagall over the piano, a model of a Paul Granlund sculpture on a lazy Susan atop the dining room table, and in the spare room, flat files of artwork waiting to be framed, said her close friend and colleague Rodney Allen Schwartz, who runs an art gallery inside Westminster, a project that he and Heller started in 2002.
“The early exhibitions featured art from her collection that would come back and forth on the cart,” he said. As they began building a collection, she would frequently donate works, saying, ‘Well, why don’t you just keep it?’ ” Schwartz said.
Every Sunday after church, the two of them would have lunch, he said. “We always called that our plotting and scheming time, because it was talking about artists and talking about art and talking about future exhibitions or future acquisitions or what we could do. And it was just the most wonderful thing,” said Schwartz.
Heller loved modern work on Biblical themes from international artists like Japanese printmaker Sadao Watanabe as well as art made closer to home, like ceramic works by her friend Warren MacKenzie and etchings by Eagan’s Joan Bohlig.
She sought out works depicting Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, a New Testament moment that Schwartz called “her story.” The theme may have struck a chord because as a child, classmates teased Heller about her big feet, he said. She would recall that her mother told her she was going to become an important woman and she’d need those feet to support herself.
Heller had a graceful style that she retained even in her last months, her friends said. She wore her signature color, blue, as she received a stream of visitors to her hospital bed, including church members who would play the violin for her. “Liz brought the best out of all of us and made us a better church,” Hart-Andersen said. “And those of us who knew her personally, she helped us become better people.”
Heller’s survivors include her sister, Anne Downing LaFollete. A service will be held at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Saturday, Aug. 24, at 2 p.m.