Lois Fernandez, founder of Odunde Festival, dies at age 81

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 Lois Fernandez, who helped to found the celebration of African culture in 1975, talks with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf at the 42nd Annual Odunde Festival. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Lois Fernandez, who helped to found the celebration of African culture in 1975, talks with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf at the 42nd Annual Odunde Festival. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

The brains and vision behind one of Philadelphia’s internationally recognized culture institutions is dead.

Lois Fernandez, founder and longtime creative force behind the Odunde Festival, Philadelphia’s celebration of African culture, died in her sleep Sunday morning, according to family members.  Her death was a surprise to many, but she had been confined to a wheelchair for years while she dealt with health issues.  Still, she remained active in keeping the festival as one of the city’s finest for over 40 years.

“Never in my mom’s wildest dreams did my mother think Odunde would grow to this level. Never ever,” said her daughter Oshunbumi Fernandez, who is now the festival’s CEO.

Lois Fernandez started the annual event celebrating African culture in 1975 with $100 and inspiration from a trip to Africa three years earlier. Over the years, the festival grew to stretch across 12 blocks over South Street each June and attracted performers, vendors and artisans, along with hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the country.

As she grew older, Fernandez suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and was often in pain. Eventually, she handed over the reins to her daughter.

“I used to tell my mom, ‘Mom you always took care of everybody else, but you never took care of the one who looks back at you in the mirror,'” the younger Fernandez said. “That’s why my mother had so many health conditions because she always took care of everybody else and she forgot to fight for herself.”

“My mother was the best mother in the world,” Fernandez added. “That’s why I feel so much peace because me and my mom, we lived life to the fullest.”

There is no word yet on funeral arrangements. Those who want to honor her life are asked to contribute to Odunde 365, an effort to support the city’s school children.

The mailing address is PO Box 21748, Philadelphia, Pa. 19146.

Annette John-Hall contributed reporting.

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