Catherine Minnis, 94, 'Grandma Dynamite'

Posted: October 16, 2012

WHEN CATHERINE Elizabeth Russell Minnis was a non-teaching assistant at University City High School, she earned the nickname "Grandma Dynamite."

It's not hard to imagine how she got that appelation. Catherine was a ball of energy when it came to doing something she enjoyed - like helping others.

Her dedication to be of use to everyone who needed her special love and devotion was the keystone of her life and her reason for being.

Catherine Minnis, whose musical talents were prized by churches in the city and suburbs that called on her to play the organ and piano for the choirs that she often organized, a community and political activist and a devoted family matriarch, died on Wednesday. She was 94 and lived in West Philadelphia.

Although most of her musical activities were in Baptist churches, she was proud that she formed what she believed was the first African-American gospel choir in a Catholic church at Our Mother of Sorrows, at 48th Street and Lancaster Avenue.

Catherine was born in Philadelphia to Charles Russell and Elizabeth Tribbett-Russell. She graduated from West Philadelphia High School and studied music at Temple University. During World War II, she was a civilian employee of the Philadelphia Naval Base.

In the early 1960s, she met Milton A. Minnis when they performed together in a spiritual singing group. She played the piano, and he was the tenor. They were married, and continued to make music together for 51 years until his death.

Catherine had a number of jobs. In the '70s, she became a school-bus matron after two of her children were struck by a car while walking to school. She wouldn't let that happen to another parent.

As a child, Catherine attended her father's church, Pinn Memorial Baptist, as well as her mother's church, Ward African Methodist Episcopal.

In later years, she was ordained an elder in the Fellowship Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where she was minister of music until she retired at the age of 90.

"Mommy understood God's lessons about the brilliance of light and the beauty of love, about the plan and purpose that he had for her life," her family said.

She was a co-founder of Habitat for Humanity in West Philadelphia. She also founded the Cathedral Park Association to support her neighborhood and started after-school programs.

"She encouraged people to be the best that they could be," her family said.

Catherine served as a Democratic committeewoman in the 44th Ward, where she worked diligently for her candidates.

"Mommy did all of this and still found time to pray for love, and nurture her family," her family said. "She instilled hope, and encouraged the dreams of her children, their spouses and her grandchildren. . . . Her life force also inspired many of those who looked fondly upon her as mother."

She is survived by three sons, Salahudeen, Eric and Charles Minnis Sr.; five daughters, Frances, Vera, Catherine, Dorothy and Elizabeth; eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Services: 11 a.m. Thursday at Christian Fellowship Church, 6101 Oxford Ave. Friends may call at 9 a.m. Burial will be at Eden Cemetery, Collingdale.

Contact John F. Morrison at or 215-854-5573.

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