WASHINGTON (WUSA) -- The founder of Bethesda New Life Gospel Church In Washington, DC passed away from natural causes on Wednesday morning, according to the church's public relations staff. Bishop Iola B. Cunningham, credited as the first African-American female minister to build a church from the ground up in D.C., was 94 years old.
Wednesday morning, the church released a statement on its Facebook page:
"It is with a sorrowful spirit that we announce the passing to glory of our beloved Bishop Iola B. Cunningham, Founder & Overseer of the Bethesda New Life Gospel Church, in Washington, DC.
Please continue to keep her family & the entire BNLGC family in your prayers. "For we know to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord."
According to her biography on the church's website, Cunningham was born in South Carolina and raised in a Christian home. Cunningham got married before moving to D.C. She then graduated from Martha Washington Vocational School, majoring in tailoring and interior design. She also became a member of the Tenth Street Baptist Church in the early 1960s. After an experience organizing a prayer band she started her journey towards becoming a bishop.
Cunningham was tutored by the late Rev. Frank Killingsworth of the Kodesh Church of Emmanuel and was ordained on June 12, 1965. She then served as an associate minister and held several revivals starting in 1970. At a revival at the Salvation Army's Chapel in June 1972. Rev. Cunningham announced a new church named Bethesda Kodesh Church of Immanuel. Bethesda remained under the Kodesh Church until 1980 when Bethesda was granted independence.
In 1983, Cunningham was consecrated and "set apart to Office of Bishop and Supervising Elder by the late Bishop C.R. Christian and Bishop Calvin Herbert."
Among her greatest achievement was the church built in the Kenilworth Avenue, NE corridor.