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Rev. Isabelle Miller, ‘spiritual mother’ of Holy Temple Church in Roxbury, dies at 100

Rev. Isabelle Miller
Rev. Isabelle Miller

Called to the ministry at 18, Isabelle Miller began a lifetime of offering spiritual guidance and sustenance.

“She was an excellent teacher and preacher of the Bible,” said Pastor Thomas L. Williams of Holy Temple Church in Roxbury.

Ordained as an elder in the church, where many simply called her Mother Miller, she was 100 when she died in her Mattapan home on Oct. 24 of heart failure.

“She was a fiery preacher,” said Judith Paige, assistant pastor at Holy Temple Church. “She would bring the spiritual thought out of whatever she preached. And it would be effective. It would affect people’s hearts; it would affect people’s minds.”

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Known as Elder Miller, she had been the last living charter member of Holy Temple Church, which was formed when two churches merged more than 70 years ago.

She preached in Greater Boston and other regions and led revival meetings attended by members of the United Holy Church of America, a predominantly Black Pentecostal denomination.

“She’s widely known in our church organization throughout the world,” Williams said. “We looked to her for her grace and wisdom and compassion, and for her deep, deep spirituality.”

Elder Miller was also well-known for her talents in arts and crafts. She formerly worked as a home economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, her family said, and had traveled throughout the country as a 4-H agent.

In the latter role, she had also introduced many inner-city children to the wonders of rural life, arranging for them to attend agricultural exhibitions they otherwise never would have seen.

“That introduced us to farmers,” said her niece, Shirley Snyder of Stoughton. “How else would we have known about that?”

Elder Miller’s longevity in the church, however, was the most lasting and expansive legacy of her life.

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“She would speak largely throughout New England, and she would also go to other states and speak,” her niece said. “She was an ordained minister and would bring biblical, scriptural encouragement and text to people, wrapping it in stories and applications that the everyday people could relate to and apply to their daily lives.”

Williams said Elder Miller had “actually worked in various aspects of ministry,” including revivals and speaking at other churches.

“Her knowledge and wisdom of the Bible was incredible,” he recalled.

Born in Boston on May 31, 1920, and raised in the South End, Isabelle Wilson was a daughter of Saul Wilson and Ella Nora Dones. Her father had worked taking care of a bowling alley and in maintenance at Boston Floating Hospital. Her mother had worked in the linens department at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Elder Miller’s work as a home economist grew out of her own interests.

“She started out with arts and crafts in the basement of the house,” said her son Kevin of Mattapan, “and she ended up getting a job as a home economist.”

Similarly, her involvement with 4-H clubs was echoed by her work in the neighborhood. “In the ’60s, she worked for a beautification program,” Kevin said. “They were fixing up empty lots and turning them into gardens.”

The oldest of nine children, Elder Miller struggled with anemia and illnesses as a child, but kept up with her schoolwork, graduating from Roxbury Memorial High School, and later attending New England School of Theology and Boston Bible Academy.

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As a girl, she attended a church that became part of the United Holy Church of America’s New England District, her niece wrote in a tribute. That experience became a steppingstone toward Elder Miller’s life as a preacher.

In 1941, she married Bishop Lewis P. Miller, who was in Boston as a United Holy Church of America delegate from his Philadelphia church. They lived in Philadelphia before returning to Boston, and had four sons: Lewis III, Robert, Nathaniel, and Kevin.

Though her husband had pastoral assignments in Springfield and in New Haven, Conn., the family considered Boston its home through the years. Bishop Miller died in 2011.

“My mother was the matriarch of the family after my grandmother passed away, and of the community,” said her son Robert of Mattapan.

Snyder said that “Aunt Belle was like a second mother to me. She was the person who was instrumental in me getting my first job, a volunteer job as a nutrition educator. I was 16 and I would travel to inner-city Boston schools to teach the importance of nutrition. That was under the umbrella of Aunt Belle and the 4-H club.”

In the church and at home, Elder Miller was a confidant to all who needed someone, according to her son, Robert.

“Any time of the day or night people would call her for counsel. My mother would give counsel especially to the young people,” Robert said. “You could always talk to my mother in confidence. She was special because she was always there for everybody.”

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Paige said Elder Miller “was the church mother, aside from all the other accomplishments she had. And from the moment I met her, she was my spiritual mother. She had so many spiritual children.”

Offering support to others, even when they didn’t realize they needed guidance, Elder Miller could sense the emotions behind the words spoken in a conversation, Paige said.

“She would know what was going on with everybody. She’d say, ‘How are you doing?’ And if I said, ‘Oh, I’m fine.’ She’d look at me, tap me on the cheek and say, ‘Now, tell me how you really are.’ She could tell when something was a little bit off,” Paige said. “She was like that with everybody. She could see beyond what we were saying. It was really awesome.”

A service has been held for Elder Miller, who in addition to her sons, Robert and Kevin, and her niece Shirley leaves two brothers in Mattapan, Theodore Wilson and Bishop Frederick J. Wilson; five grandchildren; 10 great-grandchildren; and six great-great-grandchildren.

“She was a tremendous speaker. She spoke eloquently and she spoke well,” Kevin said. “One thing about her preaching, she painted pictures for you, and she was very good at this. I enjoyed listening to her.”

Williams said that “not only was she our church mother, I looked at her as my spiritual mother as well.”

He added that she was the spiritual mother “not just for our church but for folks all over the country. They all considered her their spiritual mother. She just embodied what a true woman of God should be.”

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Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.