Bishop Nellie C. Yarborough had one mission: Make sure everyone was somebody’s somebody. She nurtured by nature, her colleagues and family said, treating those she encountered as her own children.
“She made you feel like you were the most important person in the world when she was talking to you,” said her nephew William Parker of Boston. “She genuinely cared. She ministered and reached out to those who didn’t have anything.”
In the Grove Hall section of Dorchester, she worked with parishioners and police to help the neighborhood transcend crime and poverty. Known as Mama Nellie, Bishop Yarborough believed that if people prayed hard enough, they could get whatever they wanted, and one of her greatest desires was to be pastor of Mount Calvary Holy Church in Dorchester, which she served for 50 years.
“She had an incredible faith in God,” said Cyntoria Grant, who worked with Bishop Yarborough as her adjutant for 17 years and attended her services for 33 years. “And she instilled faith in people so deeply.”
Appointed assistant pastor of Mount Calvary Holy Church in 1962, Bishop Yarborough became senior pastor 10 years later and retired in June. Diagnosed with cancer and other illnesses, she died Dec. 8 in Park Place skilled care center in Hyde Park. She was 87.
In 1994, Bishop Yarborough became the second woman to be ordained as a bishop in the Mount Calvary Holy Church of America. When she died, she was the only woman holding the title.
“There’s an empty space that will never be filled,” said the Rev. Keith L. Magee, pastor of Berachah Church in Dorchester, who knew Bishop Yarborough for 16 years. “There are other women pastors, but they did not do what she did. She was a pillar of the church.”
Educated and adaptable, Bishop Yarborough was a friend to the homeless men and women she encountered, conversing with them one minute and advocating on their behalf with politicians the next. At her church every Thursday night, she served food, restaurant-style, to those who could not afford meals. The crowd often topped 100.
“Bishop Yarborough clothed the needy, fed the hungry, and uplifted neighborhoods,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a prepared statement. “She improved everything she touched and was a leader in the community for many years.”
Calling her “a pillar in her community of Dorchester,” Governor Deval Patrick issued a proclamation designating Dec. 14 Bishop Nellie Constance Yarborough Day in recognition of her pioneering work “serving the hungry and caring for the homeless through the food pantry, clothing ministry, and community supper ministry.”
Citing her work with a host of boards, task forces, and other community and church organizations, the Boston City Council had proclaimed Nov. 3, 2011, as Bishop Nellie C. Yarborough Day, adopting a resolution by Councilor Charles Yancey.
Born in Cedar Grove, N.C., she was the second youngest child of the Rev. Anderson Yarborough and the former Bessie Warren.
Her mother died shortly after the birth of Delores, the last child, leaving the youngest children in the large family in the care of older brothers and sisters and other relatives. Her father eventually remarried.
“It wasn’t a beautiful early childhood,” recalled Delores Holsey, who now lives in Buffalo, “but we had plenty of love.”
Bishop Yarborough began preaching at age 12 during services for the church youth. Even though she was raised a Baptist, at 17 she persuaded her father to let her travel with Brumfield Johnson, founder of Mount Calvary Holy Church.
“She was very young,” Holsey said, “but some people know what they want early in life.”
With Johnson, Bishop Yarborough helped open churches in Durham, N.C., and Buffalo. She also went with evangelical groups to foreign countries and through the South, journeys that presented challenges to African-Americans.
“I can remember traveling and not going to bed for seven or eight days because the hotel didn’t accept blacks,” she told the Globe in 1990.
She became Johnson’s administrative assistant and their travels led them to Boston, where they helped establish the church’s headquarters. They also opened Bishop Yarborough’s future church on Otisfield Street, just off Blue Hill Avenue.
Johnson left the role of senior pastor to her when he died in 1972.
Leading lively services, Bishop Yarborough at the time preached while walking through the congregation, moving through the pews as parishioners helped her step from one row to the next, Grant said.
“She would walk from pew to pew, stepping over them,” Grant said. “She was right in it. We just moved over and let her walk the pews.”
Bishop Yarborough’s days at the church were long and she remained constantly available. She gave members her home phone number, which was only one digit different from the church’s number.
She devoted much of her time to her proudest accomplishment, establishing and becoming principal of the Dr. Brumfield Johnson Christian Academy in Dorchester.
Earlier in her life, she went to a Bible school in Chicago and was ordained as a minister. Bishop Yarborough studied religion and philosophy at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. She also received a master’s in business administration from Cambridge College, and until the end of her life continued to take graduate courses in pursuit of a doctorate.
Bishop Yarborough received numerous awards recognizing her leadership role among women and her contributions to the city and African-American community. She had worked with the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston, which last year honored her as one of the city’s great female leaders.
“You can make life as attractive as you want it to be,” she told the Christian Science Monitor in 1993. “And you can only do that if you know life is attractive.”
A service has been held for Bishop Yarborough, who in addition to her sister and nephew leaves another sister, Molly Dobson, a half-brother, Edward Yarborough, and a half-sister, Magaline Sellers, all of North Carolina.
Rather than take a salary from her church, Bishop Yarborough lived off a small stipend, telling the Globe in 1990: “I don’t want to burden the people, because they’re already burdened with survival.”
“It wasn’t just her biological family that loved her, but her spiritual one, too,” Parker said. “Her church family meant the world to her.”
can be reached at