Jacqueline Finley Livingston, the oldest of Grace Gibson Finley and Chesterfield Finley’s seven children, left Miami for Florida A&M College in 1950, intent on becoming a nurse.
But all too soon, Mother Grace summoned her eldest home to help care for the younger children: Helen, Barbara, Audrey, Alverne, Earl and Floyd.
For the next six decades, “Jackie’’ Livingston fulfilled her obligation — not grudgingly, but out of devotion to family and faith in God.
She deferred her own dreams so that her siblings — two of whom became college-educated teachers — could seek theirs.
Jackie Livingston earned an associate of arts degree in education from MiamiDade College, then at 70, a bachelor of science degree in education from Florida Memorial College.
When she died of ovarian cancer July 29 at Aventura Hospital, only Helen, Audrey and Floyd remained. But, said the Rev. Richard Marquess-Barry of Overtown’s historic St. Agnes Episcopal Church, “Jackie would not leave her sisters behind to suffer.’’
So later that same day, Helen Eloise Finley Spires died in Maryland. On July 31, Audrey Finley followed, at a Miami nursing home. Both had age-related health problems.
“This is one of the most marvelous love stories ever heard,’’ said Barry, who came out of retirement to eulogize the sisters at St. Agnes on Friday, standing over three identical white caskets, two containing women who’d given their lives to the church’s children.
Jackie, born Aug. 12, 1931, would have turned 82 Monday. She wore a silky, crystal-trimmed suit in her favorite bubble-gum pink — with matching hat.
Helen, born Jan. 14, 1933, was 80, and wore a similar suit in blue — with matching nail polish.
Audrey, born Oct. 6, 1934, was 78, also wore pink, trimmed in pearls — with matching earrings.
All attended Booker T. Washington Senior High. Audrey, who was mentally challenged, didn’t graduate, and was cared for by her family into old age.
For 35 years, Barry pastored the 116-year-old congregation in an 83-year-old building known as the “Nassau Church’’ for its ties to St. Agnes in the Bahamas, where most of the congregation’s families, including the Finleys, originated.
He saw Jackie, the church’s day-care director for 45 years, and Helen, head teacher for 40, nearly every day, so he could speak candidly about them, drawing knowing chuckles when he spoke of their sisterly spats.
He also knew their formidable mother, as strong a pillar of the church as its marble columns.
“Jackie was gregarious and outgoing,’’ he said. “Nobody was a stranger. Helen was more a taskmaster. She liked things to be done well and on time. They were both humble and generous.’’
Talking to either one of them was like talking to their mother, Barry said.
“Miss Grace instilled in her children a deep abiding love for each other. She impressed on Jackie, ‘You are the oldest and you must always look out for your sisters and brothers...’ Jackie never forgot her teaching. And she never forgot that the Lord had to be the center of her life.’’
In 1954, Jackie married high-school sweetheart Arthur Livingston, a postal worker, at St. Agnes. They had sons Arthur and Terrence, daughters Flai Livingston Richardson and Shatawn Livingston Dailey, then nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
“She was adamant that all her kids would become something in life,’’ said Shatawn, a Broward Sheriff’s Office classification specialist. “Education was paramount.’’
After her mother got her bachelor’s, Shatawn would tease: “Let’s go for a master’s!’’
Jackie would reply: “If I only had more time.’’
Jackie Livingston also raised three grandchildren. As he stood next to the grave into which his grandmother would be lowered — atop her the remains of her husband, who died in 2008 — grandson Terrence Livingston Jr., a PortMiami longshoreman, called her “my night and day, the engine that keeps me running when difficulties come about.’’
His father, Terrence Sr., a retired Georgia corrections officer, said that mother Jackie made him independent.
‘Sense of family’
“She taught me to shop, sew, cook, iron, wash — and she took my kids in when I went through my trials and tribulations...Her sense of family made me a better man.’’
Helen Finley married Samuel Spires at St. Agnes in 1959. They split up when their daughter, now Howard University professor Shelly Spires Powers, was 4 years old.
She raised her daughter as a fiercely protective single mother, which contributed to her nickname: Zulu Warrior.
Powers took her mother home to the Washington, D.C., area three years ago, as Helen’s eyesight failed.
Jackie and Helen, inseparable in life, were last together in August 2011 for Jackie’s 80th birthday in Miami. But Friday, after burying her mother and aunts at an Opa-locka cemetery, Shelly Powers knew they were together once more.
“Right now,’’ she said, “they are dancing and rejoicing in heaven.’’
In addition to their children, they are survived by their brother, Floyd Finley.