By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published February 22, 2018
ATLANTA—Emily Milner, who celebrated her 100th birthday Jan. 18, never misses Sunday Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta.
“I’ve been here a little over 40 years,” said “Miss Emily,” as she is known in the Shrine community.
Before that, Milner was a member at St. Paul of the Cross Church, Atlanta. She is the oldest living alumna of Our Lady of Lourdes School.
Dressed in a green winter coat, hat and plaid slacks, Milner recently recalled her childhood while sitting with friends in the Shrine’s parlor. Her memory is razor sharp.
“I was born in Augusta, Georgia,” she said.
When she was a small child, Milner (then Emily Morgan) and her mother moved to Atlanta to be close to relatives. Her aunt worked for the mother of “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell, Maybelle Stephens Mitchell.
It was through Maybelle that the family learned of Our Lady of Lourdes School, and young Emily began attending school there in first grade.
The school was the only Catholic elementary schools in Atlanta educating black students at the time. Our Lady of Lourdes School was established by the Blessed Sacrament Sisters, the order of St. Katharine Drexel.
Milner’s mother died, and her aunt was unable to care for her while working.
“From Our Lady of Lourdes, I went to the motherhouse for St. Katharine Drexel,” said Milner.
Connection to a saint
Educated by Blessed Sacrament sisters in Pennsylvania, Milner knew and interacted many times with St. Katharine Drexel. The order’s founder was born an heiress but was drawn to the religious life and serving others.
“She was in a wheelchair then. She was a saint while she was living,” recalled Milner. “She was a beautiful lady.”
Milner remembered the saint for her dedication to helping black and Native American Catholics.
While Milner was an honor student, her behavior was not always perfect.
“I was 13 years old. I was the biggest devil in the building,” she admitted with a smile.
The girls were supposed to make their beds in the morning in silence, which was always a struggle for Milner.
“We kept in touch for a long time,” said Milner about the other girls.
She lived at the motherhouse for three years until her aunt could bring her home. Travelers Aid accompanied the teen from the Philadelphia area to Washington, D.C. to Atlanta.
After Milner returned home to Atlanta, her aunt enrolled her in the private Atlanta University Laboratory High School, on the campus of Spelman College.
“She wanted me to have everything,” said Milner about her aunt.
The teen knew her aunt could not afford the school and took action.
“I withdrew myself,” said Milner.
She then began attending nearby Booker T. Washington High School, “the only black high school in those days.”
Fellow students and teachers recognized Milner’s abilities, and she knows her Catholic school background had much to do with academic successes. She graduated from Washington High School and married Marshall Milner. He died several years ago.
The Milners have two daughters, Emily and Delores. Emily died two years ago, and Delores is ill and on dialysis.
The elder Milner has three grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
Friends support her independence
Until last year, she was taking MARTA to get around town, but after a fall at the Five Points Station, parishioners eagerly volunteered to help with transportation to church and for errands when family members are unable.
“I’ve been riding the bus for years,” said Milner.
She said no one ever took time to teach her how to drive, but she serves as a perfect navigator for any driver, knowing all the shortcuts from point A to B in Atlanta.
She recently renewed her state identification card, and when the staff said, “See you next time, she quipped, “I don’t think so.” Her card expires in 2026.
Carole Scofield became a member of the Shrine parish two years ago and befriended Milner. Scofield said Milner had a special friendship with Officer Garrison Pierre of the Atlanta Police Department, who would see her using public transportation.
“He was very protective of her,” said Scofield. “They had quite the rapport.”
Officer Pierre would keep an eye out for her and brought her mangoes from a trip to Florida. Milner made him her famous Bourbon baked beans. The officer would always say he would put the grandmother in jail if she didn’t let others help.
After Officer Pierre’s unexpected death in Haiti in August 2017, Milner discovered that he had told other officers about her. His colleagues now look out for her and share smiles and conversation.
“I have a pretty good life here,” said Milner.
Scofield said Milner likes to attend first Friday Masses and often makes something from scratch for church luncheons.
Milner believes that faith and keeping active are keys to her longevity.
“Exercise and keep God in your heart,” she said. “God gives you seven days a week and out of those, you can give him one.”
When Milner hears someone say they can’t make it to Mass because they don’t feel well or are tired, she thinks, “God didn’t feel like hanging on the cross.”
When she struggles with aches or vision problems, she thinks of the nails in Jesus’ hands.
“I just have to give it up to God,” she said.
The still-active senior continues to kneel at Mass, enjoys sweeping her patio and working in her yard.
“Mow your own lawn,” is one of her secrets of life.
“She cleans her own house,” said Scofield.
At the parish, Milner sang in the choir, helped with altar linens and is a member of the Associates of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Like Scofield, Barbara Briggs became with friends with Milner at the Shrine, although they got off to a rocky start.
“I sort of angered her the first time I met her,” said Briggs.
Miss Emily poked Briggs in the pew telling her she had taken another friend’s spot.
Now forgiven, Briggs brings Miss Emily to church, and Scofield takes her on weekly outings to shop or for doctor’s appointments. They both enjoy being in her company and hearing stories of life in Atlanta.
“She’s a beautiful spirit. It’s been wonderful,” said Briggs.
When they are out, Scofield notices that people love to be in Milner’s presence.
“It’s so contagious,” she said.
At the deli shop they frequent, the owner would not accept Milner’s payment the week of her birthday. A florist at the grocery came running with flowers for Miss Emily purchased in secret by a parishioner.
During her working years, Milner was employed by Atlanta families caring for their children. A son from one of the families stays in touch with her.
She also worked for a small grocery/bakery business that catered many society parties.
“I worked for Kloutz for a long time. I was manager of the bakery department,” she said.
Milner first had the idea of giving away free cookie samples at the bakery to children.
She loves to make banana bread, and her spiced pecans are legendary.
“It’s very, very special when you get some spiced pecans,” said Scofield.
She said Miss Emily is “absolutely more informed” than most citizens and still votes.
“I read my paper in the mornings,” Milner said.
A special commemoration
The parish community held a birthday celebration for Miss Emily. At the Jan. 14 Mass, Msgr. Henry Gracz brought the beloved centenarian forward for a question-and-answer program.
The Associates of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament from several parishes attended, as did family and friends from near and far. Milner’s former neighbor, Alvin, came all the way from California to be there.
“When he was a little boy, he lived next door to me. He calls me every day,” she said.
Milner is also close to her son-in-law, Melvin Denham Sr., who reportedly said, “If all the mothers-in-law were like (her), there would be no problems.”
Her grandson, Melvin Denham Jr., now lives in Florida but was raised at the Shrine parish and escorted Milner to Mass.
Shrine choir member Stacie Topazi created a poster-sized birthday card for parishioners to sign. Children proceeded in with a cake for Milner. The Shrine family presented a special rosary commissioned for the church to her. The crucifix on the rosary is a replica of the one on the church’s back altar. The rosary has medallions representing the 12 Apostles and one for Father Thomas O’Reilly, the pastor credited with protecting churches from destruction by Union troops in the Civil War.
Milner is devoted to praying the rosary and owns many special beads, including her birthday rosary.
“I keep them under my pillow at night,” she said.
After church, loved ones gathered at Mary Mac’s Tea Room for lunch. The manager presented Milner with a Mary Mac’s cookbook.
And on her actual birthday, Milner never napped because of the ringing telephone.
“It rang all day long,” she said.
The greeting cards are still coming and have arrived from as far away as Macedonia from Shrine parishioners serving in the Peace Corps.
The connections Milner has developed over the decades are “the things that make life worth living,” said Briggs.
If you do something for Milner, you can expect something in return.
“You will get a handwritten note,” said Scofield.
“That’s part of the nuns’ training,” explained Milner.
No note is necessary for Briggs or Scofield, who have received more than they have given.
“Just being with you is enough,” said Briggs.
Milner’s sense of gratitude extends to her prayer life as well and she never neglects expressing it to God.
“Don’t ever forget to thank him,” she said.