Co-founder of The Jimmie Hale Mission has passed away at age 92.
Ms. Jessie Hale Downs passed in her sleep on Tuesday morning, January 5. She was a tireless worker and an angel of hope among Birmingham's poor for more than six decades. This unassuming woman of faith was co-founder of the Jimmie Hale Mission along with her late husband Jimmie Hale.
She was born in Moundville, Alabama, on January 12, 1917. Raised on the family farm, Ms. Downs received her teaching certificate from Livingston State Teacher's College in 1937. Prior to moving to Birmingham, she taught elementary school in York, Alabama.
Once living in Birmingham, Ms. Downs was introduced to Jimmie Hale, a former, notorious "town-drunk" who had overcome his addiction and was working to help others who had suffered with life as he had. They were married in September 1943. Six short months later, they opened the Downtown Mission, which would later be named the Jimmie Hale Mission.
On November 17, 1944, Jimmie Hale died, leaving his young wife widowed and expecting their first daughter. Left with nothing, Ms. Downs was taken in by a friend. Two months later, she gave birth to a daughter, but while she was in the hospital, her friend was in a serious accident. Suddenly, she was homeless herself. When a young couple who had been affected by Jimmie Hale's testimony offered her a place to stay, Ms. Downs and her infant daughter agreed.
Several years later, Jessie married Joe Downs, a former client of the Mission. He could not overcome his addiction and after two and a half years of marriage, left the family, which now included a second daughter. Throughout these turbulent years, Ms. Downs continued the ministry of the Jimmie Hale Mission and worked tirelessly to see Hale's vision come to fruition.
In February 1964, she detected a lump in her breast and went to the doctor. She was immediately sent into surgery and underwent a radical mastectomy at South Highland Hospital. It was a difficult recovery, but she became a breast cancer survivor!
Determined to continue the work, Ms. Downs provided much needed leadership to the Jimmie Hale Mission. As a single, working mother, she refused to give-in to the obstacles in her path. She served as executive director for 46 years until 1990 yet continued to travel to church groups and civic meetings to share the vision and ministry of the Jimmie Hale Mission.
What started as a storefront chapel has grown to include a shelter for men, addiction recovery programs, fundraising thrift stores, learning centers for education remediation and employment readiness, and a shelter for women and children - Jessie's Place, affectionately named in her honor.
While Jimmie Hale envisioned the ministry, Jessie Hale Downs saw it to fruition. Tony Cooper, the Jimmie Hale Mission's current executive director, often refers to her as "Birmingham's Mother Teresa." She is truly the heartbeat of the Jimmie Hale Mission. Her courage to persevere in the midst of hardship has challenged and empowered countless number of Birmingham's former homeless to get back on their feet and back into life. She will have a great reward in heaven. We will miss her very much.