GLADWYNE, Pa. — Mother Divine, the widow of Father Divine and leader for decades of a religious movement he founded that advocated racial equality and provided free food to thousands of people, has died.
Sweet Angel Divine, her legal name, died Saturday at Woodmont, the movement’s Gladwyne headquarters, the Emil J. Ciavarelli Family Funeral Homes said in an obituary on its website.
The movement doesn’t publicize birthdates, but Mother Divine was believed to have been 92 years old, The Philadelphia Inquirer said. An archivist for Father Divine’s library and museum, Christopher Stewart, told the newspaper her death was related to old age.
Mother Divine was born Edna Rose Ritchings. According to a Time magazine account, she moved from Canada in early 1946 and went to Philadelphia to meet the Rev. Major Jealous Divine at the International Peace Mission Movement, which he founded in New York during the Great Depression to promote racial equality, celibacy and devotion to the Kingdom of Heaven. The two married that year and maintained that they never consummated their marriage, in keeping with Father Divine’s devotion to celibacy.
Father Divine urged believers not to drink, smoke, swear, gamble or borrow money and to pool their resources and practice communal living. He also barred them from marriage and rejected racial identity, urging people to think of themselves simply as Americans.
Critics said those teachings were overshadowed by Father Divine’s claim to be God, a declaration Mother Divine insisted was made modestly.
The church’s key activity was operating dining halls that provided free food to people. Later the mission began charging a few cents for the meals.
After Father Divine’s death in 1965, Mother Divine led the movement for decades. She sold off many of the landmark properties Father Divine amassed with donations from the faithful in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, including the Divine Lorraine Hotel and Unity Mission Church in Philadelphia.
For a 2003 interview, Mother Divine left Father Divine’s big chair empty at their stunning hilltop estate in Gladwyne, pulling a chair alongside it and telling a reporter with a smile, “Father is here with us.” At the time, believers, most in their 70s and 80s, still gathered regularly to sing religious and patriotic songs and listen to recordings of Father Divine’s sermons.
“Basically we have not changed,” she said. “We just don’t have the people we once had.”
Musing on the demise of all eight of the mission’s cafeterias, she said, “Maybe feeding three generations of people is enough.”