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The Winding Road of Faith
Dismissed as the CEO of Hydro One, Rev. Eleanor Clitheroe found fulfilment at Oakville's St. Cuthbert's Anglican Church.

She was one of the most powerful women in Ontario, controlling not only every light switch in every home, but also the huge industrial machines and every computer in the financial district on Bay Street. Today she is simply an Anglican curate.

Eleanor Clitheroe at St. Cuthbert’s Anglican Church.
Photo courtesy Mitchell Brown.

Once she was in the headlines of newspapers throughout Canada. Today she never makes the news. Still, Eleanor Clitheroe is very much a servant of the people. And she is very content in her new role. In fact, she is more comfortable than ever before, knowing the work she now does is clearly directed by God.

The former chief executive officer of Hydro One, the province-owned service that delivers electricity from power stations to every corner of Ontario, is now simply Reverend Ellie, as she is known by parishioners of St. Cuthbert’s Anglican Church in east Oakville.

Before reaching her present state in life, she had to go through tremendous turmoil and stress, being fired very publicly and very politically from her high position in 2002. A new government at Queen’s Park was intent on privatizing the utility, with Clitheroe in charge of the changeover, when controversy erupted over her $2.2 million-a-year salary, benefits and expenses. When the cabinet brought in legislation to curb the utility’s executive salaries, the board resigned en masse over what it saw as government interference.

In response, Queen’s Park appointed a new board of directors who hastily terminated Clitheroe’s contract. Then the government took two unusual steps. Instead of the usual practice of instituting a wide-ranging search for the most suitable replacement, it hastily named a successor to settle into the CEO’s chair while it was still warm. And it enacted special legislation to prevent her suing for damages for dismissal.

As she worked through the spiritual desert in which she found herself, she went on a spiritual retreat. “When I lost my job, I sometimes felt overwhelmed and full of emotion,” she said. “There were many days when I felt God was carrying me; that He was there by my side.”

After the retreat, it was back to college for Clitheroe to add a master’s degree in divinity to her two law degrees and MBA, before taking the plunge into her new calling, first as an intern to learn the ropes before being appointed curate.

Eleanor with husband Randy on the occasion of their 10th wedding anniversary.

Now, Reverend Ellie is using all the skills she acquired over the years to carry the full load of work she has, visiting people in their homes or in hospital, working on church administration, preparing Sunday sermons, and the many other duties that go with the job. Oh, and don’t forget the prison ministry.

Clitheroe enjoyed her work at Hydro One, loves her work at St. Cuthbert’s, but prison ministry is her passion.

She recalls her days as a young defence lawyer in her articling year in Toronto when she was thrown into a difficult situation. She visited the notorious Don Jail in Toronto for the first time to interview a client. “When I heard the doors clang behind me, I wasn’t ready for it.”

She describes the oppressive atmosphere of defeat, desolation and hopelessness that pervaded the jail as the steel door slammed shut with a resounding echo. It was a memory that never left her, and she never returned to practicing criminal law after that.

“When I lost my job with Hydro I was working with the homeless,” she said “I had a great interest in people on the margins in downtown Toronto who didn’t have capabilities or opportunities. When I lost my job I was marginalized, but I was not suffering the way these people were suffering.

“I did not know what it was to feel disoriented, broken, disconnected socially and economically. It opened up compassion in my heart for people who had something like that happen in their lives and didn’t have the opportunities I had.” She explained that she had a lot of family and friends to help her through the hard times that followed her firing.

Today, she is not only a faithful volunteer at the Brampton Correctional Institution but has been appointed executive director of Prison Fellowship, adding those responsibilities to caring for parishioners and a young, active family.

She says the largest problem with the present penal system is that prison does not reform inmates. In fact, she points out passionately, not only do ex-convicts continue to offend and return to jail but the problem is also generational, as children and grandchildren of offenders tend to end up in the courts and prisons too.

She believes churches should invite prisoners’ children to Christian camps, Sunday school, youth groups and also have mentoring programs for teens so that the children can see there are alternatives to the crime-and-jail cycle.

Her desire is to see a Canada that accepts offenders again after they have served their sentence, not marginalizing them to the outer fringes of society.

Eleanor with her parents at her installation as Chancellor of the University of Western Ontario.

A powerful experience when she was a teenager helped shape Ellie’s adult life and her compassion for people.

Brought up in the Baptist tradition, she did what was usual for children in that denomination – she went to church camp in the summer. When she was 15 and a camp counsellor, she had one of those rare leisure moments when she was able to sit out on the grass, enjoying the sunshine, and reading a book.

Sitting alone by the baseball diamond, “I was reading a book on the Holy Spirit, and it was if I turned around and Jesus was standing there. It was a life-changing encounter. I had a real sense of the Lord’s purpose for my life.

“God had always been right beside me, but this launched me onto a different path. I read the Bible with different eyes. Different passages would stand out for me. I was understanding the teachings because they would vibrate in my life.”

That experience was to be repeated 15 years later while aboard a boat, recuperating from a sickness and, at the same time, wrestling with the dilemma of what she was to do with her life.

“I was not content that my path had any real value. At the same time, I was having fun on board,” she said of her time on the boat. “I awoke in the middle of the night and it was as if a voice had called me. I sat up very still and heard a voice saying ‘I am here with you.’ ” The next morning, I heard the voice again: “I am here.”

This experience completely altered the direction of her life. She went back to school to study theology for a year before returning to the workforce and reaching the pinnacle of her secular career, first as Deputy Minister of Finance at Queen’s Park and later as CEO of Hydro One. On the way, she collected a number of blue-chip directorates and was appointed chancellor of the University of Western Ontario.

After leaving Hydro, she registered at Wycliffe College to complete her Master of Divinity degree and then to embark on her new life. With her family, she moved into a student’s apartment, with no air conditioning, until she obtained her degree.

One of the difficulties at Hydro was maintaining her priorities of God first, family second and work third. “Sometimes it was work first, work second and work third and then my family and God. They had to fit into my Hydro One schedule,” she said. “That’s changed. Now I am more able to fit into my family schedule.”

She doesn’t miss the long and tedious parts of the old job. “Very little is glamour, in fact hardly any of it is glamorous,” she explains, to burst the bubble of Hollywood’s idea of a senior executive’s life of privilege. “A lot of it is hanging around airports, waiting in hotel rooms, going to business dinners, and things like that. But I loved my work at Hydro mainly because of the people. They were excellent people, dedicated to their work.”

Her voice picks up as she adds: “I love what I do now. It is a privilege to be part of people’s lives in a very special and personal way. That is a privilege in life that I value greatly.”

She speaks of the time she can now spend in prayer, whether it is before a meeting, as she heads off to visit a family, or just to take a few minutes out of a busy day to spend time in quiet reflection with the Lord. That is so different from life in the executive suite. “There is not a lot of room for a spiritual life to be evident in a boardroom setting.”

Being sworn in as Ontario's Deputy Minister of Finance in 1990.

As she concentrates on her pastoral work, her studies, and the prison ministry, one of Clitheroe’s passions has been put on hold for a while – sailing. That is, really serious sailing, not just an afternoon jaunt on Lake Ontario. Her idea of a good trip is taking part in the Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Hawaii in a 40-footer with her husband, boat-builder Randy Bell, challenging the whims and caprices of the world’s largest ocean.

Until her two children are old enough to bring their swimming, sailing and safety skills up to standard, the family forgoes the adventurous parts of sailing. In fact, at the moment, they don’t even own a boat.

But when you look at Ellie’s hectic schedule, you would wonder when they would ever find time to sail. There is always something more to do for God.

Philip Thatcher is a retired editor/writer. He and his wife, Winnie, enjoy life with their six children and nine grandchildren. He can be reached at winniephil@sympatico.ca.

Originally published in Beacon, November/December 2007.

Used with permission.  Copyright © 2008 Christianity.ca.

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