Josephine Worrell began to slow down a bit when she was 98: She stopped volunteering five days a week at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she had fed and rocked babies in the cardiac unit.
She slowed down a little more when she was 99: She gave up driving.
But at 100, Sister Worrell — as she is known at Peoples Baptist Church of Boston, where she has been a member since she was baptized on Easter Sunday in 1924 — will not give up the harmonica. And so when her church family gathered Sunday after the service to celebrate her centenarian status, she played a hymn, to a standing ovation, loud with cheers.
Worrell was the center of attention Sunday, first during the church service, where the congregation sang her favorite songs and lined up beside her pew to pay her tribute: choir members in red robes, women in dresses and heels, men in suits and ties, and the pastor.
“This is a special Sunday for us at Peoples Baptist Church,” said the Rev. Wesley A. Roberts from the pulpit. “Not very often do we have the opportunity to celebrate a century of living.”
As the organist began playing “When Jesus Came Into My Heart,” Worrell began singing, never opening her hymnal.
“Are you going to play the harmonica?” asked her friend Anna Coleman. Worrell, wearing a white dress with a lace collar and white pumps, smiled.
After the service, about 100 friends and relatives moved into the fellowship hall. When she entered the room, leaning on her walker, the crowd cheered and clapped and began singing “Highway to Heaven,” her favorite song.
Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas M. Menino and the Boston City Council had all sent representatives and issued proclamations and resolutions in her honor. Menino declared May 23, her actual birthday, Josephine Worrell Day.
“How do you capture the essence of age, of beauty, of generosity, of history in a 100-year capsule?” asked Darnell L. Williams, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. “She’s such a classy lady.”
Worrell, a retired medical aide who lives in an apartment at Council Tower, a senior housing building in Roxbury, sat near her niece and great-niece.
She never married or had children, but for years, she volunteered with sick young children at Children’s Hospital.
“She fed the babies,” said Fannie Young, who works at the hospital. “She rocked the babies. She was like a second mother to them.”
People who knew Worrell lined up to speak about her.
“Sister Worrell, I only have two words for you,” said Louis Elisa, a parishioner and former president of Boston’s NAACP. “Slow down.”
Elisa remembered trying to venture across Humboldt Avenue about a decade ago when he saw a large green car racing to beat the traffic light.
“This car took the corner at the yellow light on two wheels,” he recalled. “Someone said, ‘Wow’ — and I looked and said, ‘I think I know this person.’ ”
Later, when he saw Worrell at church, he asked if she drove a green car. “She smiles and says, ‘Yes! I just got my license renewed.’ ”
Elisa, who cooks breakfast every Sunday for parishioners between the two church services, spoke with a striped apron tied over his suit. Worrell is always grateful for one pancake with butter — and real bacon, he said, no substitute.
When Worrell spoke, she preferred to talk about her pastor rather than herself.
She described how she opened her eyes after a long surgery some years ago for colon cancer and found Roberts praying over her hospital bed.
“Through his prayers, he has carried me through this cancer,” she said.
Her voice wavered as she said, “I’m just ready to cry because everybody’s being so nice to me.”
Then she picked up her harmonica and started playing.