In a Class of Her Own
God sure packed a lot into the petite frame of Evelyn Rogers. But don’t let her size fool you. Evelyn was a trailblazer whose dedication, passion, and imagination overcame discrimination, poverty, personal loss, and illness.
All who knew Evelyn Rogers admired her strength and tenacity to motivate and inspire others throughout the Philadelphia region. Her faith, intelligence, and never-say-never attitude will always be remembered by her family, church, and community.
Evelyn had a humble beginning. Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1928, Evelyn was the only daughter of three children. She knew racial inequality firsthand but had a strong faith and close-knit family life. Tenacious and determined even as a child, her cousin, Sylvia, always admired her inner fortitude and ability to get her voice heard.
“Evelyn always made it a point to get her point across,” says Sylvia.
Her daughter, Kimberly, recalls her mother’s stories of growing up in the South where racial segregation prevailed. On one occasion during her teen years, Evelyn was frantically taking her father to the hospital after he apparently suffered from a heart attack. Their only means of transport was via the bus. Upon entering, she and her father were instructed to move to the back and sit with the “colored” passengers. She defied the driver and seated her father in the front. Stunned, the bus driver obliged.
A studious and popular child, Evelyn often assisted teachers in the Richmond Public School System by grading her classmates’ assignments. After completing high school, she enrolled at Virginia Union University eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in social work. (She would continue her studies later in life and eventually obtained a master’s degree in education from Antioch University.) Upon college graduation, she enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1951, where she served as an instructor in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) for five years, attaining the rank of Sergeant First Class.
After honorable discharge from the military, Evelyn moved to Philadelphia to escape the segregated South. Here she met and married Marion Rogers, a former marine. They had five children: Mark, Pam, Kevin, Kimberly, and Craig. The family settled in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, where the Rogers children attended St. Vincent de Paul School situated alongside the church. Kim recalls a happy childhood in which her parents served on numerous school-related groups and programs. At home, Evelyn was always organizing fun activities for the children, as well as the neighborhood friends.
“Our house was always the playhouse,” Kimberly says. “Mom would make popcorn, and we would watch movies. It was always obvious to us that our family was her greatest joy.”
At age 53, Marion lost his battle to cancer. While devastated, Evelyn knew she had to hold her family together. She held numerous positions to support her children, including social worker and counselor in the Philadelphia School District, and school counselor and substitute teacher for several local school districts.
Br. Alfred J. Smith, CM (see article on pg. 36), who has conducted his ministries through St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Germantown for 62 years, worked with Evelyn for 50 of those years. He sadly misses her dynamic presence and leadership.
“Evelyn was well-educated, feisty, and determined,” Br. Al says. “She always had a passion for St. Vincent’s, the community, and racial and social justice.”
Religion was a major facet of her life, so when the Rogers family moved to Germantown, they went to St. Vincent’s church to sign up as new parishioners. At the time, ethnic separation—even among churches—was still prevalent. They were told that St. Catherine’s was for “black” parishioners. True to her personality, Evelyn stood her ground and insisted she preferred to be a member of St. Vincent’s. Today, everyone is glad she did.
Evelyn was a faithful motivator and devoted model parishioner at St. Vincent’s. There wasn’t an aspect of St. Vincent’s she didn’t touch. She not only volunteered on myriad parish programs, she initiated several others to benefit not only the parishioners but the Philadelphia community.
“Evelyn was totally dedicated to the church and God,” says Fr. Sylvester Peterka, CM, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish. “It was obvious in how she helped make the parish a more welcoming place for all.”
With gumption and unbridled enthusiasm, Evelyn took her avocation of church and community service to heart, making a difference with ideas and initiatives. One such initiative she created was the Learning Lab, an education program that helped adults learn basic reading and writing skills in preparation for GED completion. She recruited local teachers as volunteer instructors to ensure the students were getting the best education.
“She valued education as a means for people to get better jobs and learn how to help themselves,” states Br. Al.
Another project she singlehandedly initiated and organized was the church Thrift Shop. When it became apparent to her that many of her fellow parishioners and community members couldn’t afford clothing and other basic daily necessities, she took action. She also taught a nutrition class and partnered with various local companies to help with job placements. She and her husband served as president and vice president of the Home and School Association of St. Vincent’s Hospitality Committee and were members of the church’s pastoral council. She was a long-time Eucharistic Minister, church lector, and member of St. Vincent’s African-American History Group. She acquired public transportation tokens and briefly partnered with Br. Al on his program, Inn Dwelling, a non-profit corporation dedicated to assisting poor families in the Germantown and Northeast sections of Philadelphia on education, housing and career development programs. She also worked with the St. Vincent Senior Community Center.
But her greatest accomplishment at St. Vincent’s was the Food Cupboard. While Br. Al started the program, Evelyn eventually took over in the 1980s. Along with a team of volunteers, she helped organize and provide daily food assistance to the community. For more than 40 years, she distributed turkey breasts at Thanksgiving and Christmas in addition to distributing more than 200 turkey baskets annually. She also organized a network where local schools adopted families in need, which required collecting and distributing toys and clothing every Christmas. She coordinated food donations and financial support from several prominent Philadelphia organizations. For more than 35 years, Evelyn was the force behind this very successful program, and as Fr. Peterka notes, “She ran it until her last breath.”
Her generous spirit and dedication to service are true to the Vincentian mission of service to others. Fr. Peterka sums it up best: “She is a living example of St. Vincent.”
Her daughter, Kimberly, views her as a true entrepreneur whose favorite quote was “There is nothing I can’t do.” She loved to read, had a keen interest in keeping current on politics, believed in promoting holistic natural remedies, and swore by vitamin C. She was a great Christmas card correspondent, and Kimberly remembers their home was decorated floor to ceiling with holiday cards from all over. “She may have been a tiny little thing, but she was a tough character,” Fr. Peterka smiles as he describes her. “You always knew she was in charge.”
WORTHY OF RECOGNITION
Her life’s achievements were not overlooked. Evelyn received numerous awards and honors: a recipient of the Aid for Friends Rita Ungaro-Schiavone Award given for extraordinary volunteer service and long-term commitment to the isolated, frail, elderly, and disabled homebound; an affiliate of the Congregation of the Mission; a member of the St. Martin de Porres Committee, an early advocacy program for promotion of an annual Black History Month; a recipient of the St. Vincent de Paul Award presented to those who reflect the values and virtues of St. Vincent de Paul; and the Daughters of Charity Award for her services for the spiritual family at St. Vincent’s.
She was also generous to a fault, making annual contributions to Catholic Charities, Special Olympics, African charities, Philadelphia Library Fund, St. Martin De Porres School, paralyzed veterans and wounded veterans organizations, and The Miraculous Medal Shrine.
DYNAMIC ‘TIL THE END
Sadly, in September 2018, Evelyn was hospitalized with a torn aortic valve. Fr. Peterka recalls visiting her in the hospital the Sunday before she died. As he entered the room, he was greeted by a half dozen parishioners, who came to visit her. She died a few days later.
But even though she is gone, her words still echo in the hearts of her family and friends, and the halls of St. Vincent’s parish community: “One person can make a difference. It doesn’t matter where you come from; it’s all about where you’re going.”