BERNICE Smith-McDowell felt there was something missing in her life.

As she reached her senior years, this woman who had done so much for others through a long life felt a vacancy in her own life.

There was a spiritual need that she had not been able to fill at the various churches she had tried. The fulfillment just wasn't there.

Then her daughter Patrecea Smith suggested she try her church, True Word Ministry, at 1719 Federal St., South Philadelphia, a little nondenominational church that always seemed to need painting and patching, described by its own pastor as a "hole in the wall."

But from the moment Bernice entered its precincts in summer 2009, she knew she had found her spiritual home. For one thing, she was greeted at the door and welcomed by ushers who took her to her pew with great deference.

The church had a policy that seniors were to be given special treatment, and Bernice reveled in the attention. She was home at last.

Bernice Smith-McDowell, longtime clerical employee of the former Philadelphia General Hospital who went on to work in programs for foster children and seniors in the city, a family matriarch with 34 immediate descendants (and a great-great-great-grandchild on the way), died May 11.

She was 84 and was living in a Germantown nursing home but had lived most of her life in North Philadelphia and Tioga.

She was so devoted to her little church that her daughter tells of the time her mother, though afflicted with severe arthritis and other ailments, had gotten on a bus by herself in the dead of winter and was discovered sitting on the church steps waiting for the doors to open.

She became a member of the Mothers Board and one of the leading Mothers of the church. "She was well-loved and respected by all, especially by our young people," her daughter said.

"She was happy there. She felt that God was there. She was a great asset to the church."

Bernice was also well-respected at the Crispus Attucks American Legion Post 151, of which she was an auxiliary member. She was a former president, vice president, secretary and sergeant-at-arms, as well as a bartender. She was a recipient of the post's President Medal, observing 45 years as a member.

She was born in Philadelphia the third oldest of the six children of Abbie and Walter Smith. She graduated from Simon Gratz High School.

She did clerical work in various departments of Philadelphia General Hospital for 25 years and retired before the hospital closed in 1977.

Always energetic and outgoing, Bernice then joined city foster-care programs, in which she found great pleasure. She also worked in senior programs and was a member of the North Broad Street Senior Center.

There and later at the Willow Terrace Nursing Home in Germantown, Bernice, despite her painful arthritis, was an exuberant participant in line dancing.

She also was a whiz at pinochle and could keep 16 cards going at the same time at bingo. She amazed her family with her skill at crossword puzzles.

Bernice was an outstanding cook in the Southern tradition and was the hostess at large family gatherings. When living in Tioga, her large back yard would be humming in the summer with two or three barbecues going at once.

Besides her daughter, she is survived by another daughter, Veronica Whalen; two brothers, Charles and Raymond Smith; a sister, Irma Burney, nine grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren.

Services: 10 a.m. Saturday at the Slater Funeral Home, 1426 Fitzwater St. Friends may call at 9 a.m. Burial will be in Mount Peace Cemetery.