MOTHER HAZEL Corine Lee celebrated her 100th birthday yesterday at her beloved Mount Airy Church of God in Christ, wearing a graceful red dress and a spectacular red-and-white hat that she designed and made herself.
"I design all the clothes I wear," Mother Lee said at the church, on Ogontz Avenue near Stenton in West Oak Lane. "What you see me wearing, I made."
She sat in the first pew and attended both the 7:30 and 10:30 a.m. services, as she has done for decades.
Senior Pastor J. Louis Felton warmly welcomed Mother Lee's family, saying, "One thing about these family members: If you're going to keep up with Mother Lee, you sure enough got to lace up your shoes.
"She does not drag in for the second service," he said. "She's here early for the first service every Sunday. Amen."
The congregation, standing to honor Mother Lee, responded: "Amen."
"Mother Lee is at 100 and Bishop Morris is at 83 percent," Felton said, ribbing Bishop Ernest C. Morris Sr., who founded the church in 1966 in a storefront with a congregation of 16 Sunday schoolchildren.
He moved it from site to site before overseeing construction of the current modern, 3,000-seat building in 1998.
Bishop Morris laughed and said, "Eighty-two-and-a-half won't do. If Mother Lee can make 100, I want to make 100, too."
When the early service ended, Mother Lee was mobbed with well-wishers.
"I'm here all day," she said happily. "I don't get tired. I come back here on Monday for the seniors' Bible study. I love it here. It's the place the Lord teaches me."
Interviewed between services, Mother Lee said she grew up in the countryside near Moultrie, Ga., in the segregated South of the 1920s, walking miles to school on dirt roads because black people weren't allowed on the school bus.
"We walked five miles to church, where my Aunt Nancy played the organ," Mother Lee said. "My Grandmother Caroline, who was a midwife, and my Aunt Nancy didn't say, 'You can stay home today.' Never."
Mother Lee's church-centered upbringing and her strong sense of wanting a better life helped her overcome the segregated South, said her niece, Velva Taylor Spriggs, who teaches at Coppin State University in Baltimore.
"Back then, they would not allow blacks to be educated beyond elementary school because they wanted them to work in the fields," Spriggs said.
Mother Lee came to Philadelphia, alone, in the 1940s, part of the Great Migration of rural Southern blacks to the North.
"She was the pioneer in our family," Spriggs said. "The others followed her."
Mother Lee worked as a housekeeper and went to cosmetology school so she could become a beautician, Spriggs said, studying anatomy with only a grade-school education.
Spriggs, who was growing up in North Philly and attending William Penn High School for Girls, said Mother Lee would call her and spell out the anatomy words "and I'd help her pronounce them and learn them."
Mother Lee graduated and ran her Corine Lee Beauty Shop on 60th Street in West Philadelphia for many years.
Even at 100, Mother Lee lives independently in her own house in Mount Airy with the support of churchwomen like Charmaine Richardson, who has helped her with grocery shopping and transportation for 25 years.
"Mother Lee was always a visionary," Richardson said. "She knows what she wants to do and she does it.
"I always ask her, 'Mother Lee, how are you doing?' And she always says, 'I'm feeling fine and I don't have aches and pains.' "
Mother Lee added: "And no medicines. Thank the Lord." And she meant it.
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