The hymns Sunday were about Moses in Egypt and Jesus' sweet name. And the “Happy Birthday” song was for the oldest member of the choir: Anna Wilkins, 100.
The retired beautician says she's been singing on the altar since about 1942, when she first joined St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church. On Sunday, with about 90 friends and family members crowded into the west Charlotte sanctuary, Wilkins again donned a white and green robe and blended her voice – a bit softer than it used to be – with the rest of the choir.
“I'm going to sing as long as the Lord says so,” insisted Wilkins, flashing a toothy smile after a church service and reception that showered her with flowers, a video tribute, a cake, birthday cards in yellow and blue envelopes, and congratulatory letters from three former U.S. presidents – Carter, Bush and Clinton.
Wilkins, whose actual birthday was last Friday, joins a centenarian population the U.S. Census estimates at 76,000. But that number is expected to balloon in coming decades, with the Census saying the United States will be home to 214,000 people 100 years or older by 2020 and 834,000 by mid-century.
For now, though, making it to 100 and beyond is still enough of a milestone for churches – including what seems like a growing number in Charlotte – to celebrate these birthdays of the oldest members of their flocks.
On Sunday at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal, the Gospel reading and sermon were about Jesus walking on water and feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes – ideal for a day also honoring what some of Wilkins' many nieces and nephews call the “miracle lady.”
Despite her age, Wilkins lives alone, still cooks, pays her own bills at the beginning of each month, and still drives herself to the grocery.
“Every time I go to the doctor, I get a clean slate,” said Wilkins, whose only big ailments are arthritis in her right knee – she uses a cane – and some hearing loss.
For drives longer than a trip to the store, she relies on niece Clara Epps, who also took her aunt to the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles last year to renew her driver's license – after passing the vision test.
“All during the week, we're going places, and I didn't know what to get her” for her birthday, Epps told those in church Sunday. “But I sing a little, so …”
Midway through her rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” Wilkins was nodding and singing along.
Wilkins and her late husband, Frank, had no children. But members at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal have come to consider her the mother of the church. They say her quiet calm is an inspiration whenever they encounter storms in life.
“When she's in our midst, it's as if a glow of angelic feeling exists here,” said Gertrude Kennedy, 77, who presented Wilkins with a green prayer shawl she croqueted.
Wilkins was the 10th of 14 children – and the only one still living. Her family moved from Georgia to Charlotte in 1922.
In the 1940s, she and another woman started a beauty parlor on Hill Street – near where Bank of America Stadium is today.
Anita Baldwin, 52, who showed up Sunday, remembers going to Wilkins' shop every morning before school to get her hair combed – and sometimes to pretend she, too, was a beautician.
“Once I got a comb caught in a customer's hair,” said Baldwin. “But Anna never got mad. She was always even-keeled.”
Wilkins exudes that same contentment as she talks about her twilight years. She says she gets up every morning at 6 a.m., reads the Bible and the newspaper. And by 8p.m. – after watching “Wheel of Fortune” and listening to a little Christian radio – she's ready to turn in.
She expects to keep to this daily routine – Lord willing – for years to come.
You can tell when she talks about presidents – she's seen 18 and expects to see another one inaugurated in January.
“I think I'll be here,” said Wilkins, who was born when Roosevelt – Teddy, not Franklin – was president and whose favorite was Carter, because “he showed his Christianity.”
As the celebration winded down Sunday, Wilkins was all smiles as she kissed and hugged her admirers goodbye.
Her parting words to them: “I hope you live as long as I have.”