FIRST DISTRICT Plaza in West Philadelphia is something of a miracle, and E. Catherine Shepard had a big part in making it happen.

Catherine was a charter member of Self Help Inc., formed by the First Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to create and maintain the shimmering structure at 38th and Market streets that houses ballrooms, meeting rooms and offices, and is busy day and night.

Catherine's Self Help group raised $2.5 million of the total $13 million cost of the building, and First District Plaza became the city's largest black-owned banquet facility. It opened in 1990.

It is also the headquarters of the AME Church, founded in Philadelphia in 1787.

E. Catherine Shepard, a retired manager of food service for the John Wanamaker department stores and longtime leader in local and regional levels of the AME church, died Dec. 23 of heart failure. She was 88 was living in the St. Francis Country House in Darby.

"Catherine was well known for her no-nonsense character," her family said. "She was great at organizing people and was a natural leader. She was also a nurturing woman who gave advice to several adopted daughters and sons. She will be remembered for her dedication to the AME faith, perseverance and her willing spirit."

Catherine was born to Mary Heard and William Shepard in Columbia, S.C. She got her early education there. She moved to Philadelphia with one of her sisters, Virginia Branch, and enrolled in a culinary school. She worked for more than 42 years in the food-service division of Wanamaker's and retired as head manager of food service for the company.

Catherine became a member of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church and made herself the go-to person whenever anything needed to be done. She became vice chair of the Board of Trustees, president of Pastor's Aide, director of lay activities for the Lay Organization, member of the Missionary ministry, Senior Choir, chairperson of Woman's Day and chair of church anniversaries.

She established a food pantry and ran it. She served as a delegate since 1976 to every church General Conference except 2012. She was director of lay activities for the church's South District, and was awarded the "Lay Person of the Year Award" by the Philadelphia Conference of Lay Organizations.

"Catherine was a whiz with figures," her family said. On the church-conference level, she served as financial secretary, treasurer, finance chair and adviser to the president. In the First District, she chaired the budget and finance committees.

She is survived by a sister, Margaret Ruth Porter; a cousin, Geraldine Bedenbaugh; an adopted daughter and caregiver, Deborah Stancil, and a longtime friend and fellow AMC member, Andrea Phillips.

Services: 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church, 215 N. 57th St. Friends may call at 9 a.m. Burial will be in Fernwood Cemetery.

215-854-5573