Lillie A. Ross, "the mother of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church," stood at the altar yesterday and sang one of her favorite hymns, "Discipleship and Service."
Her 90-year-old voice was indistinguishable from the dozens of others rising from the pews before her.
"Come, labor on," they sang. "No time for rest, till glows the western sky. Till the long shadows o'er our pathway lie, and a glad sound comes with the setting sun. Well done. Well done. Amen."
They came yesterday then to celebrate Miss Lillie -- and everyone calls her that -- and her labor in their church, in their schools, in their neighborhood, in their city.
They came to tell the slender woman of a job well done. And to celebrate her 90th birthday.
"She is truly a remarkable lady," said Roscoe Monroe, a church deacon who has known Miss Ross for 40 years. "She's been an inspiration to all of us. I've known her all my church life here."
Described as spry and active, Miss Ross has served her fellow man -- in educational and religious endeavors -- out of a charitable philosophy instilled in her by her father, who once studied for the ministry but never became a pastor.
"I've been interested in helping people ever since I was 6 years old," she recalled. "It was instilled in me to help people no matter what color, no matter if they were rich or poor. I've tried to minister to the young and old all my life."
The former elementary school teacher's decades of service and the celebration of her birthday did not go unnoticed by others.
President and Mrs. Bush and Gov. William Donald Schaefer sent proclamations honoring her. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke stopped by the church briefly after the worship service, commending Miss Ross for her service to the community.
"We pay tribute to all those like you who helped make Baltimore the city that reads," he said.
The mayor was referring not only to Miss Ross' years as a Baltimore elementary school teacher but also her service to the church's after-school tutorial program for neighborhood children. The program was named in her honor in 1989.
"Lillie mothered thousands of children in her 42 years as a Baltimore City public school teacher and mothered three nieces whom she reared," William Britt, the church's historian, recited from a written dedication to his former teacher. "Baltimore's Presbyterian community has appreciated her unstinted imagination, kindness, creativity, energy, lovely temperament and devotion."
Dressed in a white jacket and skirt, Miss Ross took the day's events in stride, occasionally assuming familiar duties. She recited church announcements, recognized visitors and reminded the congregation that it is "more blessed to give than to receive" when it came time to collect the offerings.
"This has been one of the happiest days of my life," she told about 100 family, friends, former students and church members at the event. "I'm so happy God has given me the spirit to work in his field. I thank each and every one of you."
Clearly, however, they had come to thank her.
"She's not only my mother in the church, but she raised me and taught me the right things to do in life. She afforded me opportunities I might not have had," said Mary Rowlette of Baltimore, one of Miss Ross' nieces.
They thanked her in their prayers, too.
"You live to help your brother and your sister," said the Rev. Curtis A. Jones.
Miss Ross has never married.
Her status as mother of the 150-year-old church, one of the city's oldest black churches, was bestowed on her in 1988. The title passes from one elderly woman to another who has "served the church very well," Mr. Britt said.
Miss Ross, he said, has worked with all the church's organizations. She was the first woman elder to be ordained and was a member and officer of the Presbyterian Church's administrative bodies.
Miss Ross also has worked with Church Women United of Greater Baltimore. Last summer, she was recognized by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church for attending 25 consecutive years of annual meetings at her own expense, Mr. Britt said.
She has remained active in secular organizations, too, including Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Few can match the honor and respect associated with her name," Mr. Britt told the congregation.
"Amen," said several members.