It was overcast at 10 a.m. on Sept. 12 when the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary Blessed Katharine Drexel Court 288 led the solemn funeral procession at Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church in Liberty City. Somber women, elegantly dressed in white with sashes trimmed in gold and Shriner-like fez hats ornamented with long tassels, paid homage to one of their own, the late Gwendolyn Heastie Welters (April 30, 1924 — Sept. 6, 2013).
She was a member of Miami’s Ladies Auxiliary since its founding in 1987. The Ladies Auxiliary of The Knights of Peter Claver (KOP) follow the teachings of St. Peter Claver (1581–1654), a Spanish Jesuit priest known as the “Apostle of the West Indies.” Through his life’s work of charitable acts, promoting social justice, and corporal works of mercy he became the patron saint of “Negro Missions.”
The local auxiliary is comprised of women from Holy Redeemer and other parishes of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, including St. Mary’s, St. Phillip’s, St. Monica’s and Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Miami’s Auxiliary’s Grand Lady, Bernadette Poitier, said “our goal is to render service to God, our church and our community. We strive to portray by example and deed the higher principles of Christian womanhood and to promote friendship, unity and Christian charity.”
Last year the Christmas Day edition of the Archdiocesan News featured the Miami Auxiliary. In it Welters, then 88, expressed concern, “not enough is being done to pass on the black Catholic traditions of education and service to the community. We must have younger members to carry on.”
Welters lived by example. The auxiliary's youth group, the Junior Daughters, are encouraged to emulate her dedication to Christian principles, education, religious and community service. Never “just a member” of organizations, she joined and became an officer helping to carry out each mission. She was the auxiliary’s financial secretary, lecturer, and the district conference chairperson. At Holy Redeemer she was also a Eucharistic minister and lector, member of the Parish Council, member of the finance committee and organizer/presenter of the Bylaws Committee.
Welters was a consummate volunteer with expansive activities beyond church. She was an active member who held numerous offices in Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, The Links Inc., Dade Heritage Trust, the African American Committee and a charter member of the MRS Club. She was diligent about recruiting and mentoring young members for organizations.
The latest example was several years ago, when Ryan Smith, a member of Holy Redeemer church and a graduate student in history at Florida A&M University, was collecting information for a class paper. Welters suggested he contact Miami’s Black Archives. He did. In January 2013, after earning his master’s degree he returned to Miami, qualified, was hired by The Black Archives and began training as an archivist. Welters, chair of the board of the Black Archives expressed excitement for this achievement.
Helping young people find employment was not new to Welters. She and her late husband, pharmacist Warren, owned and operated Brownsville Drug Store. Through their pharmacy many neighborhood high school students received employment opportunities. For 46 years their store provided an important service to our community.
Born in Miami’s Overtown to Bahamian parents Welters grew up during the years of racial segregation by custom and law. After graduating from Booker T. Washington Jr./Sr. High School in 1939, she earned an undergraduate degree in Business Education at Florida A&M in 1943 and a master’s degree in education at Columbia University in New York in 1962. An educator for 40 years she began as a school secretary, became a teacher, and retired as an assistant principal.
She lived to see customs and laws change against black people change. One of the greatest joys she expressed was “living long enough to see the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama, and the first black priest at Holy Redeemer, the Rev. Alexander Ekuchukwon. Upon his arrival to Holy Redeemer Church, Welters was one of the first parishioners Ekuchukwon visited. He was impressed with her alertness. She participated in the service, sang hymns and enjoyed the food cooked by Lady Bernadette.
Not one to seek honor or recognition for herself, Welters readily celebrated the success of others with a phone call and a card. Her deeds were recognized by the community including a 2006 Miami-Dade County Woman of Impact, a Miami-Dade Branch NAACP Leroy Thompson Pioneer Award, and the 2007 Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Citizen of the Year Award. In 2009-2010 she was an honoree in the AT&T Community NETwork calendar.
Gwendolyn Welters’ life’s work and community service unfolded at the Wednesday evening Memorial Service. For two continuous hours, representatives of organizations detailed her participation, good deeds and read poems of tribute. Every seat was filled.
The next day, on Thursday, the procession entered the quiet capacity filled sanctuary with 350 people seated and others willing to stand. Reverent mourners in wheel chairs, with walking canes, able bodied youth, women and men as well as mothers with babies all came with heavy hearts remembering her life.
Two eulogies, one by the retired Rev. J. Kenneth Major of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation and one by Holy Redeemer’s new priest, the Rev. Ekuchukwon expressed gratitude to a remarkable woman whose faith and service added value to the lives of many. This is her legacy.
Celebrating the life of Gwendolyn Heastie Welters is a devoted family including daughters, Martha A. Welters and Nina M. Welters; son Warren W. Welters III; daughter-in-law Shelain Welters; grandson Sean C. Person; goddaughter Venda Rei Harris Gibson; godsons Cyrus M. Jollivette, Joseph Poitier N. Patrick Range II; and a community of friends.