NEWARK, N.J. >> Congregants at the Newark church where Whitney Houston got her start came together Sunday to mourn her sudden death.
Houston, 48, died Saturday at a Beverly Hills, Calif., hotel, authorities said. The cause wasn’t known, her publicist said.
The pop star began singing at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark as a child. And while parishioners had fond memories of her many performances there over the years, they said her and her family’s longtime membership and service to the church is what they will never forget.
Houston was born in Newark and raised in East Orange, and many said she never forgot her Jersey roots. Her mother, Grammy-award winning gospel singer Cissy Houston, had led the musical program at the 112-year-old church. Whitney’s cousin, singer Dionne Warwick, also sang in its choir.
"The pastor asked us to support the Houston family, to share our love and God’s love with them and to give them strength in this sad time," said Shawn Cooper, 32, of Newark as he left an early morning service, which was only open to church members.
"I haven’t been a regular churchgoer, but felt I should be here today because this is a time for the community to come together," Cooper said, noting the church was full Sunday morning. "The Houston family means a lot to this community, they have done a lot for this community, and being there for them is the best thing we can do as a community today."
Several other parishioners voiced similar sentiments as they made their way into the church, ignoring the bitter cold temperatures and moderate to gusty winds.
A few sympathy cards were tied to a fence post at the church, including one addressed "to the greatest songstress ever." Next to it, a small bouquet of fresh flowers fluttered softly in the brisk morning air.
Speaking outside the church before the service, New Hope’s Pastor Joe Carter asked reporters gathered to respect the Houston family’s privacy.
"The family shared Whitney with the world, but Whitney was a mother, a daughter, and a sister, and that’s the focus we want to keep in front of everyone today. We ask that in this time of grief, you respect their privacy," Carter said.
A former classmate at a Newark high school recalled Houston in a phone interview as a sweet, bubbly yet unpretentious girl.
Dr. Maria Pane said she attended Mount Saint Dominic Academy with Whitney Houston. The two had homeroom together as well as physical education, French and art.
"She was such a beautiful, kind girl and very quiet that to be honest with you, I had no idea there was a star in the making," said Pane, who now lives in Maryland.
Pane said the two rode the bus together after school, and she remembered Whitney’s favorite way to pass the time at the bus stop: practicing her dance routines.
In a statement late Saturday night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called the singer "a true New Jersey treasure" who died too soon.
"Her terribly premature death is an awful loss for her family and the incredible New Jersey musical family. Her soaring talent put her in the pantheon of great New Jersey musical talents like Frank Sinatra, Count Basie and Bruce Springsteen. Our prayers are with her family."
Some of Houston’s fans came to the church Sunday as a way of dealing with their grief. Among them was Charice Crawford, a 34-year-old Irvington resident who said the singer’s music became the soundtrack to her life.
"This is where I needed to be this morning," said Crawford, who does not belong to the church. "I understand why I couldn’t attend the service, but being here helps ease the grief of her passing."
When she was a child, Crawford said she and her younger brother would pretend they were Houston and ex-husband Bobby Brown, singing their songs to entertain family members.
"I always wanted to be her when I was little, and I always bought her albums the minute they came out, Crawford said. "It’s so sad to think she’ll never sing again."