Sharing wisdom gathered over 10 decades of life

by Kristin Holmes
Posted 4/27/23

At 102, Deacon Rena Graves figures she is an expert on the intricacies of aging.

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Sharing wisdom gathered over 10 decades of life


At 102, Deacon Rena Graves figures she is an expert on the intricacies of aging.

She walked more than two miles to attend elementary school and earned a master’s degree 70 years later. She cleaned houses when she started working as a teenager and was supervising a manufacturing staff by the time she retired.

Graves has shared her wisdom as a member of the clergy and a block captain, as an aunt and a friend. Now, she hopes to share her keys to aging with grace and acceptance. Her advice is common-sense simple.

“Oh, well,” she began during an interview in her Germantown home. Oh well, as in, you can’t change it, accept it and don’t waste the time you have left.

“You have to find a way to make each minute of every day interesting,” she said. “God gave you a gift. What are you going to do with it?”

Graves plans to share her insights in a book called “Gathering,” a companion to “Rena Remembers,” a memoir published with the help of Graves’ fellow parishioners at The Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill. She aims to help older adults find an approach to aging that fulfills them, and also offer advice on matters from finding ways to forgive to avoiding scams that target older adults.

She knows that reaching the ten-decade mark in a lifetime marathon is not easy.

“I see old age as an individual thing…. How do you deal with disappointment and being alone,” Graves said. “You can’t do it by feeling sorry for yourself. Wake up, figure out what’s working that day. Hands? Feet? Then work them.”

The centenarian-plus delivered advice from the house she’s lived in for decades.  She paused to greet a fellow minister who stopped by to say hello, and counsels a niece who canceled a visit because she isn’t feeling well. “Go to urgent care,” Graves says sternly into her phone. “Remember, you’re 67 – not seven.”

Graves can’t forget that she’s 102. She admits her strength has waned. A teakettle is too heavy for her to pick up. She moves slowly, but her conversation flows freely.

Graves grew up with a mother and grandmother who worked for wealthy families, serving dinners, cleaning their homes and helping them with parties. Graves attended William Penn High School for Girls and had her first experience with racism at the school when a counselor belittled Graves’ college ambition to become a social worker. It wouldn’t be the first time Graves’ aspirations would be discounted – and those who dismissed them proven wrong.

After graduation, Graves began working as a housekeeper. After a short stint making $6 a week, she quit for a bigger paycheck.

“Every job (or challenge) had to be a stepping stone for the next one. That’s the way I ran my life,” Graves said. Eventually, that philosophy led to a post at Honeywell where she was promoted to supervisor and worked for 25 years.

By the time true romance entered her life, Graves was over 50. She met Preston Graves at a picnic and he began courting her one Sunday when he drove up to her house in a brown Oldsmobile. They married, but the man Graves calls her “beautiful butterfly” died of cancer several years later.

Friends helped lift Graves out of her grief, and her faith sustained her.  She had left the Baptist church to become an Episcopalian because she felt a kinship with the “high church” rituals in the liturgy. She sang in the choir and attended church conferences. But eventually, she heard “a still small voice” urging her to join the clergy.

“That’s a call [from God], and I answered it,” Graves said.  When her pastor frowned upon a woman joining the diaconate, she left the church and found a more welcoming congregation. She trained for four years and was ordained in 1985. Soon after, she began serving as a chaplain at Wissahickon Hospice. Graves delivered food, ministered to people who were homebound and started food pantries. In her 80s, she earned a master’s degree. 

“I was the oldest person [in class],” Graves said. “I carried a tape recorder so that I wouldn’t miss anything. I knew I had age against me, but I said I’m not going to let it be that way.”

Eventually, Graves found her way to St. Martin’s.

“I knew of St. Martin’s because of the work they did. They were at the top of the wheel, so I went there,” she said.  After joining the church, she started an annual Black History Month display and worked diligently in community programs.

Her presence at the church is an inspiration, said Sandra Brockington Gould, a fellow parishioner who calls Graves her “earthly Godmother.”

“Rena has ignited spiritual life with her wisdom and knowledge of God,” Gould said.  For decades, Graves has traversed a “Christian walk of love, service and looking for the best in others and giving the best she has.”

Graves’ St. Martin family regularly celebrates her birthday, assisted her with meals during the pandemic and supplies support as Graves has lost some of the independence she so cherishes.

The successful formula for getting through these final years “is how you shape your mind to approach it,” Graves said, and a spirit of gratitude works wonders. “You thank God for the gift he has given you – life.”