Paying respects to one who was 'precious to God'

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Members of Paoli Presbyterian Church and CityTeam Ministries of Chester gather outside the church to memorialize Elva Parker.

Elva Parker was a familiar face in downtown Chester.

On her good days, she picked up trash in a patch of parkland off the Avenue of the States where she liked to sit. She gave away some of the little money she got from Social Security to people who said they needed it.

But on her bad days, she screamed, cursed, and threw things at passersby on the street whenever she thought they got too close. She was arrested for hitting an officer who told her to move along.

She lived on the streets. And that's where Parker, 80, was found freezing in November. When James Salvey, who lived in a shelter across from the alley she called home, saw the commotion, he rushed over and wrapped her in blankets. Parker died at a hospital about an hour later.

In the months since, some who knew her, and some who didn't, have joined to honor the memory of the "spunky" woman who friends say could elicit tears with her beautiful singing voice. Their effort culminated last week in an unlikely gathering at an unlikely spot, nearly 20 miles from the gritty streets of Chester.

Parker was one of more than 15,000 homeless Pennsylvanians, according to recent estimates. One fifth of them are in Philadelphia.

"Hopefully, this woman and others who have died on our streets this winter will not die in vain," said Sister Mary Scullion, president and executive director of the homeless advocacy group Project HOME in Philadelphia. "Both their life and their death will be a call to action to us and to our elected officials that in our country we can and we must do better."

Parker didn't share much about her life, but people who knew her pieced together as much of her story as they could.

She was born Elva Mae Hubbard on May 20, 1934, in Chester, where her parents raised her.

Her parents were dead by the time she married Andrew Louis Parker, on March 2, 1967. The couple lived for a while on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia. She worked as a housekeeper.

Parker volunteered at CityTeam Ministries in Chester when she could, sorting donated clothes, singing for shelter residents, and passing out toys at Christmas.

Those who knew her said she had been homeless for more than 15 years. No one knows exactly why, but she struggled with depression after a few heartaches.

Her only known children - twins - died at birth. Her husband died, and so did her brother, whom she took care of.

Most members of her church, St. Paul's Church of God in Christ, and CityTeam, knew Parker only after she became homeless. They tried to help the woman they knew as "Sister Elva" and "Miss Elva."

She ate meals with the church's 50 other members when she showed up for services. For her 80th birthday, they treated her to a buffet dinner.

People who loved her tried often to get her to stay at shelters. But she avoided them because she feared other residents might steal from her.

An evaluation at Crozer-Chester Medical Center found Parker suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, her pastor said. Eventually, she stopped taking her medication. She told others it was making her fat.

She cared about her appearance and carried around two hand mirrors. Despite her age, her hair always stayed a reddish brown. The CityTeam workers who found her on her last day came across a compact makeup kit in her makeshift home.

Kwinn Tucker, a director at CityTeam, knew Parker for a dozen years. A few weeks before Parker died, the two had their first full conversation.

Tucker said she worried about Parker in the cold.

"She said, 'You know what? I'm OK. God has me, God has me,' " Tucker said.

After Parker died, Tucker said, she saw that the woman had drawn dozens of crosses on a wall and on a storage container in the alley where she lived.

At a memorial service for Parker on New Year's Eve, the benches of St. Paul's filled up fast. Chester's mayor, John Linder, was there.

The pastor, Thurston Jones, and his wife, Pat, did not know how they would be able to pay the thousands of dollars needed to bury Parker.

So Paoli Presbyterian Church stepped in.

Some church members had ties to CityTeam and knew Parker. After her death, they told other church members about her, and together they arranged to have her cremated. They offered a spot in their memorial garden at the back of the church where former pastors, congregants, and community members are buried.

"She was precious to God, so she was precious to us," said Jeff Conway, pastor of the Paoli church. "So we wanted to make sure we honored her in that way."

On Thursday, roughly 60 people gathered in the garden for Parker's burial. Most were Paoli church members who had never met her.

While Conway prayed, he held the multicolored rosary Parker was wearing when she died.

After singing "Amazing Grace," the group surrounded the space in a low brick wall the church had reserved for her. Her name is engraved on a granite slab that will seal it.

Conway placed Parker's rosary beads in the compartment in the wall that will be the permanent home of "Miss Elva."

 


mbond@philly.com

610-313-8207 @MichaelleBond